The ubiquitous Azad Maidan in Mumbai can narrate several stories of Ajinkya Rahane. Most of it are told and retold several times, but like a good story it’s worth retelling. So the story goes that young Ajinkya, not yet into adolescence, was hit by a strapping bowler more than twice his age during a practice match. He lay prone on the ground, wincing in pain.
The sympathetic teammates and umpires advised him to head back to the dugout, which must not have been anything but a disorderly row of plastic chairs under a shamiana. Rahane just got up, washed his face and returned to the crease. The next ball, he drove for four. Then another. Then he flicked another to the fence, or the chalk powdered line that functions as the rope at most maidans. Then another. Had the bowler stared back at Rahane’s eyes, he wouldn’t have sensed the storm he was to stir up. His eyes are that placid, except when they bulge while batting. It’s difficult to read his mind through his eyes.
The story, though oft-repeated and embellished upon every retelling, is contextual because it allows a peep into the making of Rahane. It tells how unruffled he was from a young age. It tells why he was unflustered when banged on the helmet by the fiercest bowler around. It tells why he has scored almost everywhere he has travelled. It tells why he has emerged as his country’s most bankable batsman in crisis. Swing. Spin. Pace. Bounce. He has mastered it all in the last three years. Technique. Temperament. Maturity. He has ticked all those boxes.
It also tells why he can overcome the mini-slump he has endured in the ODI series against New Zealand and the ongoing England series. In the ODI series that followed the Tests against New Zealand, he scored 143 runs at an average of 28.30 despite opening the innings, his preferred slot. It wasn’t abysmal but a lot was expected of Rahane after the South Africa series last year and the tour to the West Indies.
Sometimes, a sudden failure can muddle the mind. Negativity coils into the thoughts and you start doubting your judgment. The feet remain static and the fear of failure gets overbearing.
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Rahane’s string of low scores in the England series — just 63 runs in five outings at 12.60 — points to a doubt-ridden mindset and is not really an indicator of some grave technical flaw or temperamental vulnerability.
Rahane has found unusual ways to get dismissed. Sample these. In Rajkot, on the kindest batting surface the series has seen, he played nothing more than a couple of rash shots. In the first innings, he began assuredly and triumphantly saw through a testy short-ball spell by Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad. However, he would get out to the modest left-arm spinner Zafar Ansari on his first India tour. It was a short ball that begged to be pulled. Rahane had played ‘the pull’ several times against Mitchell Santner, a bowler faster than Ansari. He had looked in total control of the shot as he would press back and smack the ball through midwicket. Against Ansari, he would attempt it again. Surprisingly, he couldn’t pull it off. Batsmen look silly when they misjudge the length. But Rahane isn’t the first batsman who has misjudged length or looked silly.
However, you expect Rahane not to repeat mistakes. He did repeat in the next innings, again misreading the length. This time it was the off-spinner Moeen Ali, to whom he swayed back, to cut him fine behind point. Maybe, he misjudged the turn Ali would get. This one turned big into his pads and bounced on to the stumps. Rahane sporadically brings out this shot, but generally not on a fifth-day surface when his side is locked in a match-saving battle.
In Visakhapatnam, Jimmy Anderson had him caught behind with an away-swinger. Here he was genuinely outsmarted by a cerebral fast bowler. Rahane, while watching replays of this dismissal, must have felt he could have left the new ball alone for wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow.
In the second innings, Adil Rasid troubled him initially. A ripping leg-break enticed his edge, but Bairstow wasn’t fast enough to react. Then another one whizzed past the shoulder of his blade. Then he kept out a grubber. It was perhaps the first time in his career that he had looked troubled against a leg-spinner. But eventually, it was Broad, at the start of a thrilling spell, who evicted him. The ball bouncing a little more than Rahane expected. Though, there were those who said he should have presented the full face of the bat. While driving the ball, Rahane opens the bat-face with mathematical precision, but when defending he is a little hesitant.
Undone by the wrong’un
In Mohali, that same reluctance would prove to be his undoing. Facing leg-spinner Adil Rashid, Rahane stationed the bat beside the front pad. It seemed to be anticipating a ripping leg-break which would go past the bat. He misread the wrong’un and was trapped in front of the stumps.
Rashid later admitted it was a gut feeling.
“Looked to bowl fairly straight at him (Rahane) and mix one (googly). That one just came out quite good and trapped him in front. Sometime you plan, sometime it’s just a gut feeling,” he said.
Here, Rahane was outwitted by his own muscle memory of a recent struggle. Of all the dismissals, it’s Rashid one that would hurt him the most. In the first Test, he played a shot that he could avoid in the future. In the second Test, he fell to the wiles of the most seasoned bowling firm in the world now. Not picking a googly is not something associated with batsmen from the sub-continent.
Rahane isn’t a nervous wreck either and has the backing of his team as well. “I don’t think there is any worry for the team. The way he has batted in the past — overseas and in Indian conditions and all formats of the game — he has been a successful player. Matter of couple of innings. Once he starts scoring runs, he will be back in form. He is an important player in the team,” observed Cheteshwar Pujara, who could perfectly empathise with what Rahane could be feeling now.
Rahane himself wouldn’t sulk or brood over it. The pattern was similar in the South Africa series last year. He scored just 39 runs in his first four innings, before ending the series with successive hundreds.
But he would know that he needs to kill a few pesky demons in the mind. It shouldn’t be difficult for someone who is seldom shaken by calamity. Or with the next Test in Mumbai, he can just revisit the grand old Azad Maidan. Its stories should keep him warm and tight.