Lokesh Rahul must have been a bundle of nerves coming into the final Test versus Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground. After playing two forgettable shots on debut at the MCG, the 22-year-old from Karnataka was in the focus after promoted to open the innings with Murali Vijay. But far from letting his failure in the Boxing Day Test rattle him further, Rahul showed his true mettle, playing some delightful shots against a top quality Aussie attack. He was unbeaten on 31 and shared an unbroken 71-run stand for the second wicket with Rohit Sharma after India were in early trouble on Day 2 on Wednesday. (Scorecard | Day 2 Highlights | Day 2 Report)
A lot had been expected of Rahul even before he set sail for Australia. He had scored over 1000 runs in the Ranji Trophy last year and Rahul Dravid had singled him out for special praise. But on debut in the Boxing Day Test, Rahul shocked his high-profile admirers when he played two horrible shots - against Nathan Lyon in the first innings and Mitchell Johnson in the second.
To make things worse, he dropped an easy catch offered by Chris Rogers at the slip cordon - the Aussie opener went on to score 95. He made mistakes on the field and skipper Virat Kohli's expressions betrayed his frustrations. But then, luck finally swung his way. Deep in Australia's first innings, Joe Burns mistimed a Mohammed Shami delivery and Rahul sprinted from mid-on to complete a good catch. He was slowly finding his bearings. (Steve Smith Emulates Bradman, Kallis With Fourth Straight Ton)
That effort must have spurred him on. As India's innings got under way in Sydney, Rahul saw Vijay getting out to an expansive drive. Mitchell Starc was breathing fire and Ryan Harris was bowling a nagging line. There was plenty of chatter in the middle as Australia sensed more blood. But Rahul, who opens for Karnataka in domestic cricket, seemed to be in his comfort zone. The stylish right-handed batsman survived a few nervous moments, ducked and swung away from the short balls before revealing a wide array of exquisite shots. A cover-drive off Ryan Harris had written class all over. (Tough for Bowlers on Flat Wicket, Says Shami)
Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar, one of the most technically correct batsmen in his era, was impressed with what he saw from the commentary box. Rahul presented his bat to Lyon, even with four close-in fielders breathing down his neck. He was quick to come forward to defend and rocked back equally swiftly to cut the turning ball. Against the pacers, Rahul was not scared to meet the ball under his eyes and showed enough alertness to drop his wrists at the last moment when Starc decided to bang in short. However, like most other men his age, Rahul needs to work on his temperament.
Sunil Gavaskar, former India captain, was happy with Rahul's strong display on Day 2, but urged him to not let the bowlers get under his skin. Starc was very chirpy and that might have got to Rahul, who tried to play a pull shot with three balls left in the day. "Rahul needs to remember that he does not have to win matches in three balls," Gavaskar told STAR Sports on Wednesday.
Gavaskar, who is hailed as one of the best openers to have played the game, saw plenty of positives in Rahul's game. "The way he got behind the line of the ball and swayed away from the ball, was very impressive. There was a bit of nervousness at the start of his innings but he shaped up very well after that. However, he needs to work on his tentativeness in the initial phase of his knocks."
Rahul's spirited effort, also drew praise from the Australian camp. Damien Martyn, a former Aussie batsman, doffed his hat to India's new opener for coming back strongly after a nervous debut. "Nerves are always involved in your first Test match. But Rahul walked out there and did well. He had to fend off a few short ones and watch a few going past but he survived and did well," Martyn said on STAR Sports' post-match show.
It has been the best of Rahul's seven days in international cricket. Poor shots, dropped catches and ugly misfields could soon fade into oblivion if he gets a big score on a crucial Day 3. He dug India out of early trouble with Rohit, but the tourists are still 501 runs adrift of the Aussies. If he can conquer the odds on Thursday, he would perhaps have etched his name in Virat Kohli's notebook.