Finding inner strength
With Virat Kohli firmly in charge of the Indian team, the second-in-command never hogged the spotlight. But Ajinkya Rahane was thrust at the helm with the team missing some of its stalwarts after one of India’s most embarrassing outings, in Adelaide, at a time his own career seemed at a crossroads.
Phase of setbacks
Once touted as an all-format player and India’s best overseas batsman, it has hardly been smooth sailing for Rahane since the 2015 World Cup, as he was often considered ill-suited to the white-ball formats. He has not played a T20 for India since August 2016 and last appeared in an ODI in February 2018. It’s easy to say that one shouldn’t mix formats up, but the setbacks clearly affected Rahane’s Test game as well. The Melbourne hundred was only his second since he last appeared in coloured clothing for India.
What was said
Soon after the 2015 World Cup, after an ODI defeat to Bangladesh, then white-ball skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni put a question mark on Rahane’s suitability to the shorter formats.
“He needs pace. We have seen that he plays a lot better when there is pace on a wicket. Whenever he has played at No. 4 or No. 5, if the wicket is slow, then he struggles to rotate the strike freely. Especially when he is just starting his innings, he has a bit of trouble. It is not easy,” Dhoni had said. It started a period when Rahane shuttled in and out of the side on a regular basis. When Kohli took over the reins, he seemed more amenable to the qualities Rahane brought to the table.
“Jinx (Rahane) is a top-class player. I had said earlier that Ajinkya will be looked at as a third opener, but that situation can change because he has batted at No. 4 in a World Cup before,” Kohli said during the 2018 tour of South Africa. But someone forgot to convey the captain’s opinion to the selectors, as that was the last time Rahane was seen in an ODI or T20I. And when India were imploding in the 2019 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand, many thought he was the man needed to steady the ship.
What did Rahane say?
“I was actually thinking I will be there in the World Cup batting at No. 4. My goal, my aim, is to come back into the ODI team, do well in white-ball cricket which I am really confident about. Especially when I was playing county cricket when World Cup was happening… as a player everyone wants to be a part of the World Cup team, especially when you know you have worked really hard, your record in the past was really good,” he said long after the snub. “At that time, I felt that I should be there at No. 4.”
“If you see my record before getting dropped in ODIs, it was good actually. People obviously talk about strike rates, people talk about averages; in the two years before getting dropped, my record was really good in 50-overs cricket,” he added.
Rahane may have had an iffy period with the bat in international cricket, but his ton left head coach Ravi Shastri impressed.
“The discipline, you know, on such a big stage…When he (Rahane) went out to bat, we were 2 down for 60, and then to bat six hours, on probably the toughest day to bat, because it was overcast all day and he batted for six hours, unbelievable concentration. “I thought his innings was the turning point,” Shastri said.
Off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin credited Rahane for shepherding the team through a situation when few gave them a chance. “Jinks’ calmness in the dressing room really provided us that stability to go out there and express ourselves in this game,” he said.
Praise came from across the aisle as well. “Very well deserved, that’s a sensational Test match hundred under a lot of pressure as captain after what happened in Adelaide,” former Aussie captain Ricky Ponting, Rahane’s head coach at IPL franchise Delhi Capitals, told 7Cricket.
Ashwin finds turn, turnaround
“When your backs are up against the wall, lean back and enjoy the support of the wall!!” Ashwin tweeted after the victory. It could refer to the Indian team bouncing back from 36/9 in Adelaide as well as himself making critics eat humble pie. Ashwin was considered by some as a bowler who flourished only on helpful pitches at home, but Adelaide and Melbourne should bury that theory forever.
Ashwin hasn’t played white-ball cricket for India since July 2017, probably a reaction to India going down to Pakistan in that year’s Champions Trophy final. With only Tests to look forward to, Ashwin has often been a victim of perception, and seemingly never far from the axe, as perceived by Sunil Gavaskar.
“For far too long Ashwin has suffered not for his bowling ability of which only the churlish will have doubts, but for his forthrightness and speaking his mind at meetings where most others just nod even if they don’t agree,” Gavaskar wrote in Sportstar after the Adelaide Test. “Any other country would welcome a bowler who has more than 350 Test wickets and not to forget four Test match centuries, too. However, if Ashwin doesn’t take heaps of wickets in one game, he is invariably sidelined for the next one.”
What was said
Ashwin started splendidly in 2018, both in England and Australia, before his body betrayed him. Injury meant he was half the bowler for the rest of the series in England, while he didn’t play Down Under after the Adelaide Test. Another off-spinner, Harbhajan Singh was scathing in his criticism after the Southampton Test, where Moeen Ali bowled England to victory on a helpful surface while Ashwin struggled. “India lost the match where Moeen Ali bowled better than R Ashwin. Him (Ashwin) not being able to take wickets is the reason why we are 1-3 behind in the series,” Harbhajan was quoted as saying by India Today.
Ashwin’s groin injury didn’t elicit much sympathy either. “I really don’t know how serious Ashwin’s injury was. If it was serious, then the team management should have known it. And if he was really fit, then he failed to bowl like it was expected of him,” Harbhajan said.
And a few months later, head coach Shastri had anointed chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav as India’s No. 1 overseas spinner, after he excelled in a Test in Australia, in Ashwin’s absence. “He (Yadav) plays overseas Test cricket and he gets five wickets, so he becomes our primary overseas spinner. Going ahead, if we have to play one spinner, he is the one we will pick,” Shastri told Cricbuzz. Referring to Ashwin’s dodgy fitness record in 2018, he said: “There is a time for everyone. But now Kuldeep is our frontline number one overseas spinner. Even in Test cricket, it is going to be the age of wrist spin, especially in overseas Test cricket.”
Nobody was more frustrated with these setbacks than Ashwin himself. “If I could, I would have pulled my soul out and killed this body,” he told Cricbuzz about that phase.
Ashwin prepared meticulously for the current Australia tour, factoring in both the conditions and the batsmen in the opposition. The way he has had Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne on toast is incredible.
Even the No. 1 Test batsman acknowledged that Ashwin has had the wood over him this series. “I probably haven’t played Ashwin as well as I would’ve liked. I probably would’ve liked to have put him under a bit more pressure,” Smith told SEN Radio. “I’ve sort of let him dictate terms and that’s something I’ve probably never let any spinner do in my career.”
Being relaxed definitely helped Ashwin in performing to his best, with confirmation coming from within the family. “I have seen/spoken to Ashwin after every Test he has played and after a lot of wins. But I have never seen him this happy, satisfied and light (can I say?) with a smile in his eyes in almost 10 years,” his wife Prithi tweeted.
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