Four years ago, speaking about Ajinkya Rahane, Rahul Dravid had told The Cricket Monthly that having successfully completed a cycle of touring the world, Rahane must be experiencing the beautiful feeling that he belongs at the top level.
“For me after playing a year of international cricket, I knew I could do it,” Dravid said. “I just knew. It took me a year. I played [Curtley] Ambrose. I played [Allan] Donald. I played [Courtney] Walsh. I got a good feeling. I got a one-day hundred. I went on tours. I approached tours differently. I just felt, ‘I actually belong here.’ Then you start thinking differently. ‘Now I want to do more for the team. Now I want to become a match-winner. Now I want to do it when it is tough.’
“Sometimes you need a bit of success. Something just clicks. That’s when you know, ‘Boss, I belong here.’ He [Rahane] has developed his attacking game. He now knows it deep down that, ‘Boss, if I work hard, if I practice, I can succeed at this level.’ It is a very good feeling to have. It takes some time to come, but when it comes you know it. You know, ‘Boss, I belong here.'”
You wonder, though, if that feeling is permanent or if it can disappear with time.
In many ways, Rahane the batsman has been the hardest to pin down among the group of batting talent that emerged from India since the retirements of the Sachin Tendulkar batch. Cheteshwar Pujara is the out-and-out defensive bulwark; Virat Kohli the all-round, all-format genius; and Rohit Sharma the limited-overs colossus whom you try to push into Tests every opportunity you get. What is Rahane, though? Difficult to put in a bracket.
When he was piling up the runs in domestic cricket, Rahane somehow didn’t get a debut, travelling with the squad on 13 occasions before finally being handed the cap against Australia in Delhi in 2013. Putting a nervous debut behind, Rahane showed he could dominate world-class attacks – be it South Africa at Kingsmead, Australia at the MCG or England at Lord’s. Often run down by domestic bowlers – in casual conversations – as someone who didn’t turn up on the big occasion, Rahane became India’s go-to batsman on a stretch of 11 straight Tests in South Africa, England and Australia.
In the first 13 Test series that he played, Rahane averaged under 29.66 in only one. In nine of them, he averaged over 50. This was enough for him to become the second name on Indian team lists – R Ashwin wouldn’t be picked for all away Tests – and thus the vice-captain. Then came a horror home series against Sri Lanka in late 2017 in which he averaged 3.4, which was deemed to be reason enough for India to drop Rahane for the South Africa tour that followed in early 2018, even though Rahane was the rare Indian batsmen who averaged better away than at home and played pace better than spin.
All this while his limited-overs cricket confounded. That the selectors made him captain when MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli rested for the short Zimbabwe tour in 2015 showed they had identified a future captain, but then again Dhoni would find – not unfairly – that Rahane was a pretty limited limited-overs batsman: dashing against the new ball but sluggish once the field spread. The next management rated him higher in limited-overs cricket than in Tests, dropping him in the longer format in South Africa but during the ODIs anointing him India’s No. 4 for a World Cup that was less than two years away. A series later, he was back to being the Test specialist with no place in the ODIs.
Ever since then, Rahane has come across as a batsman not at peace with his game. It will be simplistic – and perhaps unfair – to blame one selection call: if you are good enough, you should come back. It is not that Rahane has not come back – and to be fair to them, the team management have shown more faith in him since that South Africa tour – it is just that you don’t feel he is the same batsman. In 23 Tests since then, he has scored only two centuries, averaged under 40 and his strike rate has been 45. Before that, he had nine centuries in 43 Tests, used to average 44 and strike at 53 runs per 100 balls.
One of the reasons experts feel Rahane has hit this inertia is that he relies on getting away with a couple of early risks before he settles in. In this phase, he has not had that much luck with these starts or perhaps has lost the attacking instinct a touch – which can be the difference between a four and a nick – or perhaps attacks have figured him out better.
It is an observation that has backing in numbers: according to ESPNcricinfo logs of whether a batsman was in control of how he reacted to a delivery, in the last three years, no Indian batsman has hit more not-in-control boundaries in the first 30 balls of an innings than Rahane. And yet, his overall control numbers at the start of an innings are better than even Kohli, but his strike rate lower. It points to a possible pattern of defence, defence, defence and then the need for a four.
Even when he gets off to a start nowadays, Rahane doesn’t settle into the efficient pace he used to earlier. He used to average 86 in innings he crossed 20 before that South Africa series in 2018, but since then the number is down to 61 – behind Kohli, Pujara, Hanuma Vihari, Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw and Rohit.
“The issue with Rahane will be the dual responsibility of leading – for more than one Test for the first time in his career – a diminished side that might still be shocked and of turning around a plateauing personal career. And as is usually the case with a stand-in, he will have a less than ideal XI at his disposal.”
That young man mistaken by many as a pushover but who had this urge to dominate the best in the world – Dale Steyn in Durban, James Anderson at Lord’s and Johnson at the MCG – has been lost somewhere at a point of his career where you would expect him to come into his own. It is not that Rahane has been a liability, but those VVS Laxman-like classics – doomed as he is to be compared, with Laxman also being the No. 5 – have gone missing. The last of those arguably was the pocketbook version of the epic Dravid-Laxman Eden Gardens stand, which came in Bangalore in a match-winning 118-run association with Pujara to halt what looked like a marauding Australian side, in early 2017.
In normal circumstances, this series would have been extremely important for Rahane to keep the question marks away come the home series – against England in February – where his record is not great. It is at this time though that Rahane will captain India for more than one Test for the first time. It cannot be ideal that he comes in with the possible match-turning run-out in Adelaide to his credit, and the most scrutiny over his shot and his defensive technique during the 36 all out in the second innings. And as is usually the case with a stand-in, he will have a less than ideal XI at his disposal in the regulation captain’s absence plus the forced loss of Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami to compound his problems.
Rahane has captained India twice before in Tests. In the first of those, in a crucial series-decider against Australia in Dharamsala in 2017, he pulled out all the positive moves – from selection to bowling changes to field placements to an attacking innings to kill a potentially tricky chase – so his diminutive demeanour should not be an issue. The issue will be the dual responsibility of leading a diminished side that might still be shocked and of turning around a plateauing personal career.
Melbourne around Christmas is not a great time to be visiting: it is a great time of cheer for families, but it remains only within those families. If you don’t have your family there, you want to go out; but there is nobody outside. Streets of the CBD can seem eerie with no people. You know it is a special time for the country, but somehow you are not part of it. It is only the next morning that tens of thousands of cheerful people walk into the MCG.
It was here on Christmas day six years ago – when possibly cricketers preparing for the Boxing Day Test are the only ones working – that Rahane visualised himself dominating Johnson. And he duly did that in a brutal assault, even as the bowler got under the skin of Kohli at the other end, drawing three bad shots in a brief spell of play. This visualisation is almost manifestation: “if there are positive things in your mind, they will happen,” Rahane says.
But will those visions be as clear and unambiguous this Christmas?
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