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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Waiting for the second innings: Ajinkya Rahane

Rahane has had a forgettable time of late. Can the upcoming IPL help him get back into the groove?

Written by Vishal Menon , Devendra Pandey | Updated: September 19, 2020 12:42:38 pm
DCAjinkya Rahane will be turning out for Delhi Capitals this year after a dozen years with Rajasthan Royals. (Twitter/DelhiCapitals)

For a player once considered India’s best all-format batsman after Virat Kohli, the last few years have been less than stellar for Ajinkya Rahane. He is holding on to a place in the middle order in the Test team, but last played white-ball cricket for the country in February 2018. To make matters worse, the 32-year-old has experienced diminishing returns in the longest format as well.

His last assignment before the world went into lockdown produced a mere 91 runs from four innings in New Zealand. However, it seemed a case more of a cluttered mindset than any apparent technical discrepancy.

Fear of failure and losing his Test spot seemed to be weighing heavily on Rahane’s mind. He seems a shadow of the batsman who scored more overseas Test hundreds in his first 10 Tests than managed by Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid.

As he gears up for the Indian Premier League – now in Delhi Capitals after a dozen years with Rajasthan Royals – Rahane will hope the enforced break will have given him a chance to reassess his game and recharge his batteries.

Taking too much responsibility

Sometimes, being too tightly strung as an individual and wanting to succeed too badly gets in the way of success.

Former Mumbai coach and Rahane’s one-time room-mate Vinayak Samant is someone who has seen Rahane develop as a player, even before he came into the national side. “Sometimes, he has a habit of thinking too much. I remember when he made his debut for Mumbai more than a decade ago, he was putting too much pressure on himself. His thinking was on the lines that ‘I have to take responsibility on my shoulders and take the team to victory.’ Sometimes, these things backfire and he was a complete flop in his first five matches. Once he started to relax and didn’t take too much tension, he started to score runs again,” the former wicketkeeper told The Indian Express.

READ | Enjoy opening but open to finisher’s role at No.5 or 6: Ajinkya Rahane

Samant vouches for the seriousness with which Rahane takes his cricket. “He is one who likes to sleep by 9 pm and wake up by 5 am. His work ethic is tremendous. When it comes to batting, his class is comparable to Kohli’s. His stats prove that, look at his scores abroad. Most of his runs have come away from home. But last season, I felt he was playing his shots too early. Probably, somewhere he was in two minds.”

Left in the lurch

Maybe, all the talk about his scoring rate – by former skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni – and getting dropped after a solid one-day series in South Africa in 2018 is still taking a toll on Rahane’s mindset. That was after he was constantly in and out of the side, and shuttled around as an opener, one-down and then in the middle order. His T20I career has seen just 20 games, the last of which came four years ago against the West Indies.

None other than captain Kohli had heaped praise on Rahane after that South Africa tour, and it looked like India had zeroed in on their No.4 batsman for the 2019 World Cup in England. “Very happy for Jinks (Rahane). Jinks is a top-class player. We understood fast bowling was going to be a big factor in this tour. He was superb; he took on the fast bowlers,” Kohli had said after the series win.

READ | From being out in the cold, Ajinkya Rahane steps into IPL cauldron

Someone who has helped him with his game over time thinks Rahane probably is too nice a guy to question his omission from the playing XI.

“It’s a mystery why he doesn’t play ODIs despite him performing whenever given chances. Sometimes, I feel he needs to speak up. He is a reserved guy who doesn’t like to argue with anyone but a time comes when one has to start asking questions. He is the vice-captain of the (Test) team and needs to show that in the dressing room by talking,” one of his mentors told The Indian Express.

“He was about to get dropped for a Test match against Sri Lanka in Delhi despite being the vice-captain. He was fine with it until one of his Mumbai teammates questioned the team management about his exclusion.

He (Rahane) has given an impression that if the team management wants, they can drop him and he will take it happily. It’s good to say ‘I’m ready to make a sacrifice for the team’ but one has to understand hard reality.

Public memory is short. He should have been in the World Cup team. But Rahane never questioned his omission.”

It took him more than a year to articulate his disappointment about missing the World Cup. “I was actually thinking I will be there in the World Cup batting at No. 4, but it is gone now. I don’t think too much about it (the World Cup), but yes, especially when I was playing county cricket when the 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, and your record in the past was really good.”

Fresh start a good start?

Ahead of this IPL, Rahane’s career is at a crossroads. He would like to remind selectors about his white-ball prowess, especially with the two T20 World Cups and a 50-over World Cup scheduled over the next three years. It will be a reboot for him with a new franchise. Interestingly, it was Sourav Ganguly — the current BCCI president and the franchise’s mentor till last year — who was instrumental in getting Rahane on board. Ganguly’s endorsement may restore much-needed confidence in him.

The long break due to the pandemic may work in his favour too. In his first virtual press conference for the Delhi Capitals, Rahane said he had not picked up a cricket bat in five months. Visualisation exercises, meditation and spending time with daughter Arya helped him through the period in isolation. The key would be to shed the baggage of the past, and enjoy his batting again.

But it remains to be seen whether Rahane manages to book a permanent spot for him in the Delhi Capitals playing XI. Prithvi Shaw and Shikhar Dhawan are likely to be the opening pair and with skipper Shreyas Iyer and the dynamic Rishabh Pant in the set-up – not to mention overseas players like Alex Carey, Shimron Hetmyer and Marcus Stoinis – the veteran may have to warm the dugout in at least a few games.

Even though he has expressed his willingness to bat in the middle order, batting down the order in the 20-over format comes with its own set of challenges. In the past, Rahane has had his best time as an opener in T20 cricket.

The team management may consider him surplus to requirements later in the order, and the innings, when batsmen are required to find the boundary and stands on a regular basis.

If that happens, it will be interesting to observe whether Rahane takes it on the chin, ‘for the team’, or speaks up about the disappointment.

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