The 4-year-old kid, who used to run around the house wielding a bat, making his father throw balls at him all day long, for the pure joy of whacking it hard, years later now is the captain of KXI Punjab in the 13th edition of the Indian Premier League. In an unemotional monotone, the 28-year-old cricketer credits his "family" for playing a "huge part" in his success.
He has deep-set eyes and speaks like a dull breeze, but the thoughts are resolute. The water is calm but surely deep.
The journey from being a reliable and classy Test cricketer, who used to switch between the bench and the playing eleven in the shorter formats of the game, to becoming the deadeye of India’s T20 and One-day sides today, has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Slowly but steadily, Rahul’s batting average has ticked up in sizeable numbers. And the shot-making skills, exemplary still, but highly flexible too. However, the curse of the magical number ‘2020’ has befallen this Indian cricketer too; stalled his ascension, and left him lumbering in uncertainty.
No fear though. He only says, "It will be interesting" about the IPL kicking off this season. And that’s that.
"I don’t think expression only comes in a way of words." Every tattoo on his body is a souvenir of some important moment of his past. "I am a calm person, though the tattoos, (my) hairstyle and style might give a feeling that I am brash and arrogant. People who know me would know that I am a very soft-spoken and polite person."
And about his approach to the game, he says, "My fire comes out when I play cricket."
Rahul is not the one for glitzy glory. Parties and going out frequently are now a matter of the past for him. "I love just being at home with the people I love, and the people I get along with. I do like socialising sometimes."
A foodie at heart, who loves to experiment a lot with his menu, he is still that someone who’d choose his mother’s cooking over any other cuisine as his favourite. "I think there is a stage in everybody’s life, be it a boy or a girl, when they are growing up, they find themselves on that journey of understanding. You try to be different. You try to be somebody else. You go adventurous and take big steps. Sometimes you deviate from who or what you are. Or even, what you want to do."
Rahul says he was no different. "I had that phase. And as I grew up, I understood and I got a lot more mature. I understood who I am. Who I want to be, and where I want to go."
How people judge him isn’t a cause of bother to him. He wouldn’t step out of his comfort zone to please anybody either. "I am that person. I am focussed and content with myself."
The self-sufficiency, you would feel, is the bedrock to his stable growth. "There are times you feel let down by yourself and your performances. You take that in your stride. You learn from your mistakes."
Life chimes in a gentle rhythm for this otherwise swashbuckling batsman in general. Rahul doesn’t read much and loves to watch a lot of shows and movies, habits he agrees have been over-killed already. You can also call him a laid-back stickler to his regimes. "I only go to my bedroom once it’s 9.30 or 10.00 (in the night). I then go and sleep, and wake up fresh. I love my sleep," and then cautiously adds, "So, if I don’t get that 8 -10 hours of sleep, I get lazy during the day." And during the humdrum of lockdowns, he would queerly be able to estimate that he has gotten only 3 per cent lazy overall.
The supple cricketer is also proud of a highly important life skill that he has acquired during this period. "I did try my hand at cooking, during the lockdown," and proudly adds in his usual nonchalant tone that his mother always wanted him to learn, "at least know what looks like what," for basic survival if it ever came to that.
After 7-8 hours of cricketing every day on a regular tour, the youngster from Mangalore believes that the players usually get a lot of time for themselves. "I don’t like to sit and be by myself (after touring).’ He likes to spend some quality time with his friends, about whom he mentions, "I have had the same set of friends since Day-1 when I was nobody, and I am still friends with all of them." Softly adding, "I’ve picked the right people."
"I am a very simple person. I love doing simple things." Rahul loves his home. "On-and-off," he says he entertains himself with the PlayStation, while adding, "not extreme," in describing his interest towards them. And like the celeb cricketers, Rahul here doesn’t own an abundant garage to himself. "I don’t need more than 2 cars, like ever," while his sister and father own one each.
Rahul confesses that he is also a shopping addict. "I love my stuff — my bags, watches, and I have all these crazy things"; saying his clothing interests are "very street, very hip-hop, (and) comfortable, like baggy and athleisure."
The keen fashionista has another habit. He works on men’s clothing designs and his staple wardrobe collection contains more of Gully, his own brand than any other.
An aggregate of 659 runs in IPL 2018. The next year saw him only behind the brawny David Warner for the Orange Cap with 593 runs. With a total of 57 sixes and 115 fours in the two seasons alone, Rahul has been burning the rubber for Punjab. And this season, he is the captain of the team. "It’s a progression that every cricketer or player would like to go in his career — from being a youngster to becoming a good player that contributes for the team, and slowly get the responsibility of leading your team, or maybe your country at some point. That’s how every player wishes for his career to go."
Rahul says after the initial phases of the pandemic that felt like a much-needed break from cricket, the uncertainty that loomed thereafter, had taken its toll on him too like for everyone else. However, there isn’t a tinge of doubt or fear when he says, "I am confident" about the upcoming cricketing season.
With veterans of T20 cricket like Chris Gayle and Glenn Maxwell in the line-up, Rahul believes there is a good mix of experience, youth, skill, and talent in Punjab this year, along with an experienced set of support staff and coaches. "It’s important that as a leader, I get the team together and make sure everyone’s enjoying each other’s company," the captain says; "that they are in the right frame of mind to go out there, and try to win matches. Just go there and enjoy themselves." Like a seasoned general, he also adds unambiguously, "I am not someone who has targets or hopes for anything. We will go out there and do our best."
Rahul’s mother used to playfully taunt him, "An engineering certificate would have looked good on the wall." But he never thought about it. He allowed nothing to veer him away from his intention. "I will be practicing and nobody had the chance to irritate or annoy me," while sternly adding that he has worked "bloody hard" to reach this far. "I come from a small town, without a cricket family, and no support from anybody else but my performance and hard work." He is grateful for being able to wear the Indian colours, and doesn’t mind all the attention that comes with it. "People love you for who you are and what you do." Rahul wouldn’t complain about not having any privacy. "It doesn’t matter if 100 people are watching me. If I am going to a bar, and drink with my friends, it’s okay. I am a normal man. I am allowed to do that."
Collected, he might be, but not that cautious either. "I am still willing to take chances. Take some adventurous decisions. Even if ends up being a stupid call, so be it! I am still young. I am allowed to make mistakes. I am allowed to grow."
And success for Rahul is where he is today. Nothing, nobody, and nowhere else!
What changed when you were away from cricket, for so long?
I think I have understood a lot more about myself. As a person, I mean. When you play cricket for so many days in the year, and you’re constantly travelling, you’re just evolving as a player. You don’t have the time to grow or understand yourself as an individual, away from your sport. Maybe as a friend, or a fan, or family, you lose touch of that. You’re playing cricket and you’re always in that mindset of playing a sport or doing work.
Top speed hit in a vehicle
Redbull took me to the RB Ring in Austria last year. Got to experience what it was like driving on an F1 track. Don't know how fast I was going, but it was definitely the fastest by a bit.
A perfect day
Waking up without setting an alarm. Having my Mom make me dosas, having a chill peaceful day watching TV, talking to my friends, Lunch again — my favourite food — and by evening, [around] 4-6, do like a training session, shower, and then hang-out with my friends
If not cricket, who would you be? Maybe a footballer
That one person you think is unbeatable in sports Muhammad Ali
Favourite music I like everything. I like hip hop, and I go to R&D. I listen to Hindi classical music sometimes. I go to Tech and electronic. It’s all over the shop. But I like something soothing more. Something that’s calming. Something that’s soft
Favourite superhero movie Batman
Favourite film genre Fantasy, sports related movies, and documentaries
That staple brand in your wardrobe My own, Gully
Suits or Athleisure Any excuse to wear a suit, but these days it's been all athleisure
Something you’ve been craving to do Play cricket
Ibiza, Bhutan, Las Vegas, Amsterdam Ibiza, because I love the beaches. Not the party or anything
The Superhero you’d choose to be Batman
Most patriotic moment Every time I step on the pitch
First thought about Love I think of a person!
First thought about family Strength
Favourite place to be The cricket ground
Favourite football club Borussia Dortmund
Favourite cricketing shot Pull shot
Most practiced shot The forward defence
Your dream over Um… Sixes
Most intimidating deliveries ever faced When I was young, my coach used to bowl some very difficult balls with wet rubber and plastic balls and stuff. That used to sting and hurt a lot
One bowler, you’d worry to pick Rashid Khan
Wicket-keeping or batting, first love Batting
How many more tattoos? Lots more!
Styling: Aditi Khanna; Make-up: Mansi Talwar; Hair: Sayed Nayyer Abbas; Location: Courtesy Studio 6, Bengaluru