Southampton, England, the fourth Test. The game that would eventually break India’s spine and tilt the series the other way. India had just come back from the dead to win the previous Test to make it 1-2 and the match and series were on the line. Ajinkya Rahane was in the thick of things, involved in a partnership with Virat Kohli. Until that stand ended, India were ahead in the game. Even after Kohli fell in fact, India had their noses in front at the other end, and all it needed was one match-turning performance from Rahane, who was their best overseas batsmen just a year ago. But this wasn’t the Rahane of the old.
He had fallen lbw to Ben Stokes, almost absentmindedly swiping across the line, around his front pads in the first innings. India had been in front then too with Cheteshwar Pujara in control. And Rahane’s dismissal had triggered a chaos in the lower order that ended up with India ceding advantage and with it the game. What irked wasn’t the fact that he got out at a crucial time but the manner. The Stokes plan was so clear and visible. There was no subterfuge in it. It was clear that he was looking for the lbw: take a few away and bend one back in. The pattern was set, visible and screaming in the wind but Rahane had failed to pick it. It was as if his batting intelligence had vaporised. As expected, the nip-backer came but he wasn’t ready and had locked himself in such a position that he found it difficult to get any bat behind the ball. Game over.
England was like a recurring nightmare for Rahane. He would slip, almost stumble, into trouble and would then make the necessary adjustments to get out of it. The proactive batting approach that had made him one of the finest batsmen overseas wasn’t there prominently. Until the third Test at Nottingham, he was driving too loosely away from the body or getting squared up. There was this tension that you could sense in his stance. An involuntary jerk of the arms and he would be swallowed in the slips. He would then make the adjustment. Like in the second innings of Nottinghan, when he put the cover drive away for three hours at least. Just one four. Just one shot. Nothing else. It was inspiring to watch the inner battle and how he managed to curb his urges.
But just when you would think that the turning point was here, he would find newer ways to get into trouble. Like, he did in Southampton. It’s there that we saw the second adjustment. In the second innings, to avoid an encore of Stokes getting his number, he opened up the stance, made sure the front leg didn’t come in the way, ensured he wasn’t locking himself in iffy positions, and came up with a good knock. Too late and too little for India, though. A series that could have seen a great come-from-behind win had gone with the wind.
It also raised troubling questions from the watchers. How much of this diffidence of mind, this lack of confidence, had stemmed from the fact that his head was on the chopping back far too frequently in the recent times. Especially, when he was dropped in South Africa in the first few Tests. On the outside, it was a major blow to the aura the Mumbai right-hander had developed justifiably as India’s most dependable batsman on the road.
In all the series after that, there has been a pattern of sorts: first trouble, then he would find a way to get out of it. There but not quite there. The man who should have been the main middle-order batsman, pumping in assurance in the middle, has been a pale shadow. The fact that he has found a way to get back raises hopes but at this stage in his career, the initial mindless slips should not happen in the first place. At the same time, the way his one-day career has gone hasn’t helped his overall confidence either, especially the way he’s been bumped up and down the order before being bumped out of the way completely, for now anyway.
Rahane was supposed to be your best batsman but he wasn’t given the rope. It must have left its residues in the mind in form of self -doubts. It has showed in his game ever since, starting from the jitters in the stance. And it’s certainly shown in the numbers, which anyway have been on the slide over the last couple of years. After averaging over 43—with a highest of 54.41 in 2016—in each of his first four seasons in Test cricket, Rahane’s averages in 2017 and 2018, so far, read 34.62 and 26.07 respectively. He’s gone past 50 on only 7 occasions, including 2 centuries, in his last 39 Test innings. He scored 907 runs at 47.73 over his first visits to South Africa, England and Australia put together. He hasn’t quite managed a suitable encore four years on, scoring 314 runs at 26.16 with Australia still to go.
When the England tour started, it was felt that Pujara would be the one under great pressure in the middle order, especially after his horrendous county form. More so, when KL Rahul was preferred to him at No.3 at Edgbaston. But he made the changes quickly once he got back into the side. He straightened up his stance, standing more upright and tucked his right arm in so that he wasn’t chasing deliveries outside off. The combination of the two helped him cope and erase his troubles. By the end, he had played couple of big knocks, the kind that has eluded Rahane. And in Australia, it might well be him facing all the uncomfortable scrutiny.