A few days ago, while batting at the nets in Pallekele, Ajinkya Rahane and Ravi Shastri had a discussion. From a distance of about 50 yards — practice pitches and reporters’ viewing area were separated by a green iron fence — it felt like the conversation between the out-of-favour opener and the head coach, which started in English before moving to Marathi, involved batting technique and feet movement.
Rahane listened intently, occasionally nodding before going back to the nets. That he is out of the playing XI in the ODIs didn’t affect his intensity for a moment.
During an interview with this paper on Friday, Shastri called Rahane’s situation a “happy headache”. With both Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma in cruise control, having a backup like Rahane is of course a happy problem. But that’s from the team’s perspective. But no player worth his salt and professional pride would like to be a serial bench-warmer. India so far have fielded 14 players in a squad of 15 in the four matches they played in this five-ODI series.
With just one match remaining, at R Premadasa Stadium on Sunday, Rahane is the only one not to get a game yet.
But that’s set to change now after Shikhar Dhawan’s departure due to his mother’s illness. The left-hander will not be part of the Indian team for the final ODI and a one-off T20 international, as per the BCCI release. With chief selector MSK Prasad confirming a middle-order role for KL Rahul before the series, Rahane becomes Dhawan’s shoo-in. The margin of failure for him could be small.
Rahane came to Sri Lanka after scoring 336 runs at 67.20, including a hundred in five one-dayers in the West Indies. Rohit was rested for the tour and his Mumbai buddy filled in the opening slot superbly, collecting the Man of the Series award. Before the first ODI in Sri Lanka, as Rahane was kept out of the XI, Kohli explained the situation.
“Shikhar and Rohit, we know what they have done in the past together. We understand their potential also. Jinks (Rahane) understands that at this stage he is the third opener in the team.”
Rahane’s slip down the pecking order started in Bangladesh two years ago, when then India captain, MS Dhoni, dropped him following a laborious nine off 25 in a 300-plus chase in an ODI.
Rotating the strike
“He (Rahane) 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’s not easy,” Dhoni had said.
The former captain could be criticised for being harsh on a class-act, who only a few months previously, before the Bangladesh tour, had struck the ball beautifully in the 2015 World Cup in Australia.
But the fact of the matter is that only nine of Rahane’s 76 ODI innings so far have come at over run-a-ball. Of the rest, only in six innings his strike-rate had been in the 90s. That his average in Australia is 45.00, while in Asia it is 26.33, nails down the pace on the wicket factor.
Rahane and VVS Laxman apparently share some common factors in limited-overs cricket. The latter, an India Test legend, played just 86 ODIs and never featured in a World Cup during his 16-year-long international career. Laxman’s career strike-rate in ODIs was 71.23. Rahane fares a little better, 78.61. But that’s where the similarities end.
Rahane is not a limited-overs misfit, which his IPL record – 111 matches, 3,057 runs at a strike-rate of 120.59 — would attest. He is one of India’s best all-round fielders and a terrific runner between the wickets. So, why has he failed to establish himself in the ODI team? Does he put himself under extra pressure when he plays limited-overs cricket for India?
Kohli was asked about this in Dambulla. “I’m sure there’s always pressure on every player that plays, but more so, on someone like Jinks, when he goes out to bat in the shorter formats. I think any format if you have any kind of desperation or urge to cement your place or perform, so as to say, there’s always going to be a bit of pressure on you. So what we try to do is tell the players that just go out there and express yourself and you will be backed,” the skipper had said, adding: “I think he is much more relaxed after that West Indies series. Yes he felt the pressure before but he has overcome that now. He is enjoying his cricket.”
Stripped of the ODI vice-captaincy before this series, Rahane carried drinks without any ego in the first four matches.
On Sunday, in Colombo, he will get an opportunity to enjoy his batting against a listless Sri Lankan bowling attack.