When textbook cricketers succeed in the shorter formats and orthodoxy sheds its pejorative associations (albeit briefly), purists cheer. Because as formats shortened, old-fashioned cricketing virtues, such as having a compact defence and occupying the crease, became less relevant.
ODIs have always had a defined role for the solid batsman as an ‘anchor’ in the middle order. Players like Rahul Dravid, who were initially considered unsuited to the format, have made a career out of finesse and game awareness even though they lack the ability to score at a run-a-ball or clear the ground at will.
T20s, however, have made the role of the anchor redundant. This explains why, in the past few seasons of the IPL, Ajinkya Rahane has cut an unimpressive figure. In 2017 and 2018, he scored 382 and 370 runs at strike rates of 118.26 and 118.21 respectively. In this season, he has scores of 27, 70, 0, 22, and 5 in the five games he has played.
However, things weren’t always as bad.
Rahane had an unflattering T20 debut in 2007. Those who sized him up initially felt that he was not cut out for the demands of the shorter format. He forced his way into the national team the old-fashioned way– on the back of copious first-class runs over several seasons.
Rahane played three seasons for both Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals before he had a productive one. In 2012 and 2015, he scored 560 and 540 at strike rates of 129.33 and 130.75 respectively. Even during these seasons, he was an anomaly in the world of power hitters. He chose the extra cover region and down the ground to do most of his scoring. Incidentally, in 2012, he was knocking on doors for a Test selection, and by 2015, he was considered to be one of India’s most valued Test batsmen overseas. His underwhelming seasons in the IPL have coincided with an inexplicable funk as an international batsman.
For the Royals, Rahane has been accused of using up more deliveries with minimal returns. He has either taken his role as an anchor too seriously and overstayed his welcome, or he has ended up playing a rash shot too early. His inability to rotate the strike on slow wickets in the middle overs has only compounded the problem.
Rahane’s batting follows a template in which consolidation precedes acceleration. This is often at odds with the fact that it is easier to score runs with field-restrictions on than it is at the death. Teams could do worse than maximise the powerplay overs with proven hitters. “Spending time at the crease” becomes a deluded promise in the format without planned instances of aggression, and the ability to clear boundaries in the appointed time.
By opening the batting with Rahane, the team is not making the best use of a batting unit that consists of Ben Stokes, Jos Butler, Sanju Samson, and Rahul Tripathi. If the Royals are to maximise the total, it is these four batsmen who should be facing the maximum number of deliveries. The Royals cannot afford to have Rahane and Steve Smith, with their conservative styles, at the top of the order.
The decision to open with Jos Butler has worked like a charm. They might as well try opening with Tripathi, who did an impressive job opening for Rising Pune Supergiants in 2017, amassing 391 runs at an average and strike rate of 27.92 and 146.44 respectively. They should also make sure that Stokes and Samson bat at the top.
T20 relies more on a teams’ performance as a unit than other formats. With only 120 balls at their disposal, teams have one objective: maximising the total. “It doesn’t matter how runs come as long as they keep coming” is a shopworn line on air explaining the format’s fixation to metrics – run rate, dot balls, and only sometimes wickets.
This is not to say that Rahane should be dropped. Rahane’s ability as a leader is well established and so is his role in tricky conditions. It simply means that Rahane shouldn’t be opening the batting and that his promotion or demotion in the batting order should be need-based – when there’s a collapse, for instance. The Royals could take a leaf out of how Chennai Super Kings used to handle Subramaniam Badrinath. Considering that in T20s, teams usually run out of balls rather than wickets, these occasions are not going to be many.