“If Kohli is the angry Amitabh Bachchan, then Rahane is the Amol Palekar of Indian cricket,” former Mumbai player and coach Vinayak Samant, Rahane’s roommate in the domestic team, nails the persona for us.
Palekar is a man of substance and a talented actor who made his name with gentle, modest characters with a discernible middle-classness; aapla normal mulga (our normal boy), as they say in Marathi, words that would perfectly describe Rahane. With the pressure of expectations diluted in the absence of Kohli and Mohammed Shami, Rahane’s earthy lot stand a pretty decent chance in the second Test, in particular because of the conditions in Melbourne (the MCG pitch is expected to be a bit dry, and not offer steep bounce or excessive pace).
It’s Rahane’s image that this team of characters actually reflects. They might dream about being Amitabhs and Kohlis, but parse through the line-up, from top to bottom, and one doesn’t get the image of any outlandish hero wading through burning decks. They seem more like a common man waiting for the bus or local train, ready to take a deep breath and thrust themselves into the seemingly insurmountable odds of everyday life. Like Rahane.
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“He is not the type who will talk loudly or mouth curses. He will talk sensibly even in crunch pressure situations. He doesn’t get hyper. He is the silent man like Palekar. I never remember him being loud. Even if upset, he won’t show it in his reaction. That’s his nature,” Samant says.
There is a popular story in the Indian dressing room, shared by Rohit Sharma in the show Breakfast with Champions. Once, in Australia, the senior players had convinced Rahane that he needs to sledge back the Australians who were needling him. “Two or three players were sledging him, saying “f*** you, play shots and such, Ajju went towards them and did” – Sharma mimicked Rahane, sticking his tongue out and showing it to the player, and Sharma convulses with laughter in the retelling. Rahane doesn’t mouth cuss words or reach out for middle fingers; he sticks his tongue out.
Rahane, the earnest sincere somewhat shy person – who is always punctual – is known but it doesn’t tell anything about how he would captain. Someone who observed him at close quarters for two months, just recently, is Mohammad Kaif, the assistant coach at Rahane’s IPL franchise Delhi Capitals.
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“I was really impressed. He is honest and trustworthy, two qualities that all players look forward to in a captain. He is a team man, and that’s just not an empty praise. He wasn’t able to crack into the playing XI in the initial games this IPL and he might have felt disappointed within, but never showed it. He was the most eager at training, fielding like a fresh youngster, encouraging the rest. In the games, he would willingly go in as substitute and give it his all, and increased the energy levels of the team. He has often run in to give drinks as well, and even then would shout out some words of encouragement.
“Total team spirit; players notice all this and take inspiration. An India vice-captain not throwing tantrums, but eagerly doing everything. In fact, it was I who felt compelled to tell him that his name was discussed in every selection meeting and we are trying to find a way to get him in etc. He never once asked me in our numerous breakfast chats or anytime else about why he hasn’t been picked,” Kaif says.
Kaif was also impressed by the cricketing intelligence. “He doesn’t talk too much in team meetings, but whenever he said something, his views were spot on and hence, respected by everyone. He will also be good for the youngsters like Mohammed Siraj; they will know that he will be patient with them and listen them out. My gut feel is that he is a bowler’s captain; he would respect the bowlers’ individuality, ask feedback, and then make his own call.”
Rahane started to trust his own instincts as captain when he led Mumbai in the U-19 Cooch Behar Trophy. It was a four-day game against Odisha, who needed 10 runs for the first-innings lead, with a few wickets in hand. In the past, he has talked about how he was confused whether to go with a spinner or a fast bowler, as there was turn in the pitch and low bounce. He backed his instinct and went with a fast bowler, who exploited the low bounce to claim all wickets and Mumbai took the lead. One of the chief lessons he learnt from the only Test he has captained in before (against Australia in Dharamsala in 2017), he says, was about backing his own instincts. In 2015, he led India on a tour of Zimbabwe for three ODIs and two T20Is, which also had a learning moment for him. In the first ODI, Bhuvneshwar Kumar defended 10 runs in the last over of the chase, conceding just five. That taught him the need to back, trust, and support his teammates, he has said in the past.
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“I feel he would use R Ashwin really well,” says Kaif. “I got the feeling from the IPL that he knows and respects Ashwin’s skills a lot, and on this pitch in MCG, I expect him to turn to Ashwin pretty early in the game.”
Aditya Tare, Mumbai’s captain, much junior to Rahane, also spoke about his strengths and innate sense of decency. “He likes to talk to bowlers. He had maintained such a decorum that he will not mess with the captain leading that time. I always noticed he will keep on giving ideas to bowlers, will be fielding near them. He will play his role silently,” Tare says.
There is a perception that Rahane won’t take a stand on issues, preferring to avoid conflicts, a view probably attributed to him because he hardly spoke up for even himself, when he was dropped from the Indian ODI team.
Samant, who was the Mumbai coach during the phase Rahane was captain, disagrees. “There is a misconception that he doesn’t take a stand. Some show it in public about the stand they took and there are some who do it silently. Rahane is among the latter.”
Former India opener Wasim Jaffer dismisses talks about the perceived lack of aggression. “Without it, he couldn’t have played for India for so long. He is like (Rahul) Dravid; he will not show it but knows how to channelise his aggression to the benefit of his game. Aggression doesn’t mean using bad words or doing certain things overtly; everyone is different. There are lot of quiet but very aggressive individuals. Rahane is one of them.”
Jaffer isn’t getting carried away, either. “He has the temperament of a captain, has good judgement but it’s still too early to judge him as a leader. He has done it in IPL, but there are other factors involved in IPL. We shall now know, over the course of three Tests, how good he is. It will be a tough situation; no Virat, no Shami, no Rohit either. How he motivates his team remains to be seen. Everything is against him, situation is adverse.”
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Kaif feels that the adverse situation will actually have a liberating effect on Rahane and Co. “Look, no one is expecting miracles from him, especially after the way the first Test was lost. But given the conditions in MCG, if it does play out slow and doesn’t have that tennis-ball spongy bounce seen in Adelaide, I think India have selected a good team, with Ravindra Jadeja in. Not many will believe me, but I think Rahane has a great chance of leading this team to a win in these conditions.”
Bollywood might have long given up on the Basu Chatterjee- type movies but in the world of web series, we have seen a quiet return. A few days back, movie site IMDB rolled out its top 10 web series of the year. Second on the list, behind the series on Harshad Mehta, was Panchayat, an idyllic show set in rural India, A Malgudi days meets Wagle ki Duniya -type series. Perhaps, the time is ripe for Aapla Mulga Rahane, on the sporting field.