Was dropping Ajinkya Rahane for the 2018 Tests in South Africa justified?

Suvajit Mustafi
·9-min read

Ajinkya Rahane was dropped for two Tests in South Africa in 2018.
Ajinkya Rahane was dropped for two Tests in South Africa in 2018.

No one is blaming Ravi Shastri now. No one is crediting him either. Shastri simply escaped the blame because India won at Melbourne. One good thing, though. For a peace-loving Rahul Dravid, his Facebook team has to deal with a lot fewer mentions with messages and requests to coach India.

Does Shastri get credit anyway? That shouldn’t bother him till BCCI backs him, the results are delivered and the big fat cheque sprints to his bank. We will come to Shastri.

This is more about the man who got the credit for Melbourne and quite deservingly. Ajinkya Rahane gets the cake for this win. It was not just about the gritty hundred he struck. His body language emitted a positive calmness, and his decision-making was the apt blend of instincts and a ready blueprint, which played a decisive role in this win.

India's win at Melbourne is for the folklores as it came in the backdrop of the embarrassing 36. Beating Australia at home is THE challenge in cricket, and Rahane’s men accomplished that in the absence of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. To make matters worse, they even lost Umesh Yadav halfway into the Test.

The side had two debutants, and they too rose to the occasion.

Rahane is the new hero. He deserves every iota of praises that's being smeared on him. Triumphs after overcoming adversities make a better story. That's what made Kolkata 2001 and Perth 2008 special. And now, Melbourne.

The logic stays the same when we discuss personalities. If a section of the mainstream media is to be believed, Rahane had his own struggles. No, not the 5 am day starts and the early morning ruthless train journeys to CST from Dombivali or Kalyan that he made as a child. It's about the 'nasty’ treatment dished out at him by the Kohli-Shastri duo.

From renowned journalists to noted figures, many have hailed Rahane and have gone overboard in claiming he should be named the Indian Test captain. Various luminaries have even claimed that the Kohli-Shastri gang had earlier tried to destroy Rahane’s career. Despite that Rahane winning at Melbourne exhibits his strong persona and makes the win even special.

Did Ajinkya Rahane deserve the axe at Cape Town?

Rohit Sharma played ahead of Ajinkya Rahane in the first two Tests at South Africa 2018.
Rohit Sharma played ahead of Ajinkya Rahane in the first two Tests at South Africa 2018.

Chapter one and perhaps the only chapter of the above theories finds it date to January 5, 2018, Cape Town. (Maybe the other chapters are the ODI axe, but that's for another time.) The speculations were put to rest at the toss. Rohit was picked ahead of Ajinkya Rahane for the first Test. How on earth was the vice-captain dropped? Here was someone who carries the reputation of being India’s best overseas batsman.

Rahane had been dropped and that too when India were up against a pace attack comprising Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada. Quite precisely, that's why he was dropped. He wasn't getting the runs.

Sharp criticisms poured in from every corner, which forms the basis of the so-called conspiracy theory. Mythology is so deeply ingrained in our culture that myth takes precedence over numbers and facts.

Rahane had lost touch since the home series against England in 2016. He got injured midway and was replaced by Karun Nair. Despite Nair’s triple century against England in his third Test innings, he had to make way for a fit Rahane in India's next Test.

India were then coached by Anil Kumble.

Backing his vice-captain, here's what Kohli said ahead of 2017 Test against Bangladesh, "See, I feel one game doesn’t overshadow two years of hard work from another player. You need to understand what Jinx has done for the team over the past two years. He averages almost 50 in the format, and he is probably most solid batsman in our team in the Test format.

“Karun was stepping into his (Rahane’s) shoes and what he did was remarkable, sealing his spot as far as the squad is concerned. That was something that Karun did. As I said, you can’t overlook Ajinkya's two years of hard work on the basis of one Test match. He (Rahane) deserves to walk back into the team whenever he got fit.”

Rahane’s career average shot up to over 51 after the home series against New Zealand in 2016. Over the next one year, he managed to average around 37 before India's home season started, performances of which were strictly being looked at for the South Africa tour.

However, during the period of his initial batting slump, Rahane gained some reputation with his captaincy earlier that year. In Kohli’s absence, Rahane led India to a Test win against Australia at Dharamsala. As news about the cracks in Kohli-Kumble relations surfaced, many pondered if Kumble-Rahane, the brain behind the Dharamsala win was the solution.

Rahane managed 17 runs from three Tests in the home series against Sri Lanka. During this time, he played two Ranji Trophy matches for Mumbai where he managed just 94 runs from four innings. Leading to the South Africa tour, Rahane got 111 runs from nine First-Class innings (five in Tests) at 12.33.

Meanwhile, in the same Test series, Rohit got a century against Sri Lanka. In the limited-overs series, he got a double century in ODIs and even another hundred in the T20Is. Rohit was using the bat like a wand. Across the three formats, Rohit's average from the tour read 99.33!

Coming to South Africa, the strategy was always going to be five specialist batters. It had to be either Rohit or Rahane. Would it be fair to drop Rohit whose last three Test scores were 102*, 65 and 50*?

In fact, Rohit had six fifty-plus scores in his last seven Test innings. It was Rohit's form against Rahane’s reputation.

“He had trained himself to play in difficult situations and taken it up as a challenge. But I think as a cricketer you should not think only on those lines alone. You have to respect all conditions. You have to be able to deliver home and away,” Rahane’s coach and former Indian cricketer Pravin Amre had told India Today before Rahane left for South Africa.

Rahane was kept out of the first two Tests that India went on to lose. Critics sharpened the knives when Rohit managed 11, 10, 10 and 47. A tally of 78 runs at 19.5 wasn't good enough for Rohit to retain a place in the Johannesburg Test. He was dropped, and Rahane picked.

Rahane’s 9, and 47 were crucial knocks on a minefield of a surface at the Wanderers. India won. The Kohli-Shastri criticism found more fuel. What if Rahane had played in the first two Tests.

Ajinkya Rahane played a crucial role in India's win at Johannesburg in 2018.
Ajinkya Rahane played a crucial role in India's win at Johannesburg in 2018.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing. Rahane went on to play all the Tests in England and Australia after that with little success.

Trivia: Kohli, already a superstar in ODIs, was dropped from the Test side after three games in West Indies in 2011. Despite an impressive debut, Cheteshwar Pujara was dropped after a disappointing series in South Africa in 2010-11. Much earlier, Ganguly had a great start to his Test career. After the South Africa series in 1996-97, his batting average was touching 50. A string of scores – 42, 6, 22 and 8 saw him lose his place in the final Test against West Indies in 1997.

Would Rahane have won the series in South Africa? We don’t know. What we know is the fact that Rahane averaged 25.14 for almost two years between 2017 and 2019. The average was slightly better at 27.94, playing away from home.

Despite the horrendous form, Rahane was backed by Kohli-Shastri. Not only he played all the games, but he also remained the vice-captain. Even during the West Indies tour of 2019, Kohli-Shastri threw their weight behind Rahane despite Rohit being in sublime form. (Apparently, the mainstream grapevines will also narrate tales of the fractured relationship between Rohit and Kohli.)

In the past year-and-half, Rahane averages 54.3 from six Tests. His two tons includes the Melbourne classic.

Shastri’s CV now says three Test wins in Australia. Not many coaches across the world can boast of this. If not praises, don’t criticise the duo for backing Rahane. Foresight is better than hindsight, isn’t it?

Not just Ajinkya Rahane, what about Pujara and Ashwin?

Kohli-Shastri duo has been accused of destroying Pujara’s confidence with all the talks of intent. It was instead the management making a statement on playing positive cricket.

Pujara was dropped for the first Test of the England series at Edgbaston. His 2018 run till then read, 135 runs at 22.5 from four Tests.

During the same season, he was playing the County Championship in England for Yorkshire. During the build-up to the India tour of England, Pujara had 172 runs at 14.33 for Yorkshire. Meanwhile, KL Rahul was piling up runs everywhere. Again, the form against stature (not reputation because Pujara had a horrendous 2014 tour of England) was debated.

Similarly, it’s the same with Ashwin. Recently, Sunil Gavaskar implied that Ashwin’s place in the side is always under the scanner because of non-cricketing reasons.

Ashwin was the side's lead spinner till he got injured in the 2018 Nottingham Tests. He played at Southampton with the injury only to aggravate it. Once fit, he started in Adelaide in 2018-19, only to tear a muscle and was ruled out.

Before the Melbourne march, India have either played Jadeja or Ashwin overseas. Jadeja’s batting gave him the edge, and that saw him start in the 2019 West Indies Tests.

The team management deserves the credit for backing the right players and creating an excellent bowling unit. Let’s add Bharat Arun to the equation. Shastri has backed the bowling coach to the hilt. Hasn't Arun done a phenomenal job with the Indian pacers?

Even the entire Indian cricket ecosystem deserves credit for creating Test-ready players for their debut.

Celebrate Rahane. Rejoice the most-remarkable Melbourne victory. But not by spreading myth or ridiculing the team management. It's a task to shortlist the best XI to represent your country. At times there may be some overlooks.

No side can have such a great run in cricket with so many agenda-drivers and fractured relations.