“Look, [it’s] obviously something that every player works towards,” Rahul said on the eve of the first T20I against Australia, the penultimate series for India before they go to the T20 World Cup. “No one is perfect. No one in that dressing room is perfect. Everyone is working towards something. Everyone has a certain role to do. Obviously, strike rates are taken at an overall basis. You never see when that batsman has played at a certain strike rate, whether it was important for him to play at 200 strike rate or if the team could have still won playing at 100-120 strike rate. So these are the things that not everybody analyses. Or if you look at it, it looks slow.
“Yes, it is something that I am working at. Obviously, the roles that have been defined to each player in the last 10-12 months have been very clear. And the player understands what is expected of him, and the player is working towards it. Obviously, I am just working towards how I can better myself as an opening batter, and see how I can have the most impact for my team whenever I go out to play in the middle.”
Strike rate has been the dartboard on Rahul’s back ever since he said strike rates, when taken out of context, were over-rated. It is natural to expect him to be a little defensive about it. When he was asked the question about the criticism he has faced, he asked the reporter to be specific, which would suggest that he felt the criticism was unfair. However, within the team, the leadership group has thrown its weight firmly behind Rahul, saying he would play in the World Cup, and he would open.
“When he [the other reporter] asked about criticism, that is why I asked what particularly,” Rahul said about constant criticism from outside and unequivocal support from within the team. “Because we keep getting criticised for a lot of things. But the most important thing for the player in the dressing room is what his captain, what his coach, and what his players think of him.
“And only we know what role is expected of each person. Everyone is trying to give their best, and not every time will a player succeed. And that is the kind of environment we have created, that players are not afraid to play, or players are not afraid to make mistakes. This is what we do. We work the hardest for this, right? Everybody can criticise, but we criticise ourselves more than any of you do. For us, this is what we have dreamt of doing. We are representing our country. We want to win games, we want to win the World Cup, all of that is on our mind. And when we don’t do well, it hurts us the most.
“It’s T20 cricket, and the more you play and the more the game has evolved, batting first or batting second, any stage of the game, you have to be aggressive. You have to be in the mindset where you are looking to hit boundaries”
“For us, it is what goes on in our team that is most important. We have had a leader, we have had a coach, we have had a support staff that are encouraging players, appreciating players not just when they do well but also when they are going through a tough time. Which is what a player wants to see. Which is what any individual in any field would want to see. That little bit of support, that little bit of care when someone is down, when someone has not had a great game. That is what I have got, that is what everyone in the team gets. That is exactly where we want to be as a team. And that is exactly where we are. That is something we try to build on. Individuals will make mistakes and learn from it when the environment is such that you do get the support and freedom to go out there and be yourselves and express yourselves.”
The strike-rate debate doesn’t often come up when chasing, but when batting first, when teams can leave runs out in the middle. Especially in conditions where batting second becomes easier. Rahul was asked how he approached batting first.
“It’s T20 cricket, and the more you play and the more the game has evolved, batting first or batting second, any stage of the game, you have to be aggressive. You have to be in the mindset where you are looking to hit boundaries,” Rahul said. “It is the same thing with me when I go to open the batting. When you are batting first, you want to give yourself three or four balls to understand how the pitch is behaving. And then try and see how you can put bowlers under pressure, how you can utilise the powerplay, get your teams off to a good start.
“These are things that run in your mind, you speak to your partner, you help each other out. You have discussion about the pitch, what are the shots you can play, what are the areas you can target, these are some things that you speak to each other, and you come up with a plan.”
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo