New Zealand in India

A giant in Tests, below-par in ODIs. But it’s not really Ajinkya Rahane’s fault

The Mumbai batsman has been a victim of constant chopping and changing. It’s time his role is defined and he’s given an extended run.

It was in the middle of India’s international home season and the Ranji Trophy in 2012-‘13. Ajinkya Rahane had been renowned for his prowess with the bat in the cricket circles for years. Now, he had spent about a year with the national team. He was not exactly a household name yet, but he was now recognised more often than he ever was.

On one such sultry afternoon in Mumbai four years ago, Rahane walked into the Mumbai Cricket Association’s recreation centre at the Bandra Kurla Complex. The intention was to gain some valuable practice and stay prepared for whatever came calling – a domestic commitment with Mumbai or national duty. But the walk from the entrance of the MCA facility to the outdoor nets situated at the far end consumed more time than he would have wanted. A host of club members, of all ages, engulfed the young batsman – they wanted his autograph, they wanted to be clicked with him.

All the adulation and love of the fans can make the life of an international cricketer difficult; especially at times when you have a fixed schedule to adhere to. Rahane would have come to the MCA nets with a pre-decided slot for his practice session. But for the first half hour, he was hardly allowed to move. Everyone wanted a piece of the latest entrant into the Indian side. Yet, the Mumbai batsman did not even shrug his shoulders in disappointment, let alone walk away in frustration.

Rahane stood there, smiled and obliged as many as he could. He did not lose his calm, as he greeted everyone around. Once his well-wishers were satisfied, the unperturbed youngster moved towards the nets.

Non-intrusive aggression

This calmness is what Rahane carries on to the cricket field. In the Tests, he is the perfect foil to captain Virat Kohli. The Indian skipper in the longer forms raids opponents with his aggression. Rahane is non-intrusive. He does not have his own attacking ways. So there is no clash of ideologies between the two. The two of them make a decent recipe for success. In the One-Day International format too, he is the perfect understudy to vice-captain Kohli.

But Rahane is a different man with the bat in hand. At the MCA facility too, the amiable boy from Mumbai’s suburbs who did not want to upset any of his fans, was forgotten quickly. When he entered the nets, the calmness had been left far behind. He met each delivery with a purpose. The sound of the leather meeting the willow resonated through the clubhouse. His supporters were still there, but now they dared not disturb him. They stood on the terrace, some distance away, watching Rahane’s stint with the bat in awe.

Rahane may not be outspoken on the field. He is even one of the most down-to-earth players, who rarely brushes aside his fans. But when he walks out to face opposition bowlers, it is another story.

Aggression comes in different forms. It can also be expressed through resilience, which is followed by strikes of counter-attacking cricket. When Mitchell Johnson and the rest of Australia’s pace battery were making life difficult for Kohli in the third Test of the 2014 tour at the intimating Melbourne Cricket Ground, Rahane took over. He took on Australia’s attack, and enabled Kohli to settle down. Eventually, both of them scored centuries, as India took the fight to the hosts.

From one high to another in Tests

Against the Kiwis at Indore, Rahane’s resilience was back to the fore. His struggle against the bouncers in the series had become more evident with every passing delivery. But in the third Test, it was as if he had decided that if required, he would smell leather but not fall to a bouncer. He ducked – awkwardly and confidently – and took countless blows to his body. But he survived. Rahane scored 188, but the knock will not be remembered for the runs. It will be valued for the success of his fight in the mind and on the pitch that earned him those runs.

Such valiant knocks have made Rahane India’s most reliable and second-best batsman, and placed him among the best in the world too. He even averages above 50. But all this is when he dons the Indian whites. As much as he would like to paint a similar picture with the Indian blue on, the artist in Rahane is yet to produce a masterpiece in coloured clothing.

When Rahane takes guard against the white ball, the stance is the same. It has been the same since he was in school — the excessive bend of the back, the blinking of the eyes and the frequent bat taps. It is a stance that has brought him success through age-group cricket, domestic cricket and across the world in Test cricket. But it is yet to allow him to frighten international bowlers in ODI cricket.

But it’s not been the same in coloured clothing

The right-handed batsman has shown glimpses in the shorter forms of the game. While India chased over 400 against South Africa at the Wankhede last year, the batting line up collapsed. But Rahane stood out. Not only did he fight, he scored at a strike-rate of 150. He fell short of a 100 and could not prevent an India defeat, but a point had been made. Especially, after captain MS Dhoni had criticised him in a press conference in Bangladesh, a couple of months prior to the knock, for his inability to score on the slow wickets.

So the glimpses have been there. And there have never been any doubts about his ability. But only two hundreds in 68 games, with the last one coming two years ago, does not do justice to the kind of cricket Rahane can bring to the table.

Rahane averages 33.21 in ODI cricket, which is in complete contrast to his Test average. But it has little to do with his batting stance. It is more to do with uncertainty. There is uncertainty about his role in the team, his position in the line-up and his place in the playing eleven altogether.

Is Rahane the opener India’s ODI team wants or is he the middle-order batsman? Is he supposed to be the swashbuckler or the accumulator? Is he meant to sit on the bench or be out batting for the country?

With so many questions clouding his mind, his inability to replicate his Test success in the one-dayers is not really rocket science.

What is Rahane’s role in the ODI team?

For the first couple of years, Rahane opened in the ODI format of the game. Then, Shikhar Dhawan happened to Indian cricket. And Dhawan’s blistering start to his international career was followed by the rebirth of Rohit Sharma.

These developments meant Rahane was pushed down the order. And when the team was in need of quick runs, he was pushed even further down. And, finally, when he could not get the runs expected from him after all the shuffling, he would be pushed out of the team.

Till two days before the Dharamsala ODI against New Zealand, the 28-year-old was as clueless. His guess about where he would bat was as good as anybody’s. “See, I’ll get to know after this practice session, frankly speaking,” he revealed.

Thus, Rahane has received mixed signals from his ODI captain, MS Dhoni. Kohli, as the leader of the Test side, backs Rahane to the hilt. Great players often talk of how the captain’s support allowed them to flourish and become the greats they eventually were. For instance, Virender Sehwag never forgets to mention Sourav Ganguly’s role in the one-of-a-kind cricketer he became.

But there seems to be fresh hope for Rahane. In coach Anil Kumble, there is another strong voice now in the Indian one-day dressing room. And that voice seems to be in support of the Mumbai batsman.

“At the moment, Rahane certainly fits in at the top of the order. That is something we will persist with,” expressed the former India captain.

Such backing coupled with injuries to KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan has brought Rahane back to the top of the order. It is a place that has brought him immense success against the white ball in the Indian Premier League, apart from bags of runs at the domestic level. It is also a spot that earned him his first ODI century, in England.

At Dharamsala, Rahane looked at home as he walked out to open for the country. And as he strolled past 30, he looked set enough to see India’s modest chase home. But then he chased and edged a wide Jimmy Neesham delivery, and was caught behind. As he walked back, he would have been aware that it was an opportunity lost. But, when he walks out to bat in New Delhi on Thursday, he will know that this is the first of the upcoming four opportunities. With the other openers injured, and only seven more ODIs to go before the Champions Trophy, this could be Rahane’s best shot at cementing his place in the ODI side.

The kind of person Rahane is, he will always take one for the team; he will oblige them like he obliges his fans. But it is now a matter of the team assuring Rahane. Telling him that they believe in him. If that can spur him to see the white ball as he sees the red cherry with the bat in hand, the bowlers across the globe will have a new headache to deal with.

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