Ajinkya Rahane, India’s safety net back on firm ground

Sandeep Dwivedi
Ajinkya Rahane made 86 off 172 balls. (PTI)

Earlier this year while India’s World Cup team in England was struggling to find a dependable No.4, Ajinkya Rahane wasn’t too far from the action. Not part of the World Cup squad, he was Hampshire’s overseas player for the season. He would turn up for World Cup games where he would meet the television pundits — mostly former players he had played with. They would tell him how he was the answer to India’s middle-order batting blues. Rahane, those close to him say, would shrug his shoulders and give a weak smile.

His big soppy eyes would get more mournful, the perpetually sorry expression would get grimmer.

Of late, Rahane’s look has changed. Today at the Holkar Stadium, he walked in to bat with his collar turned up. The gloom seems to have lifted, from his face and his career.

During his innings of 86, and his 190 run-partnership with Mayank Agarwal, he was light on his feet. The unburdening of his mind is a possible reason, his friends want you to believe. “He had a mental block about his place in the side, there was also a feeling that he had no backers. All that is changing now,” says one of them.

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Before this Test, Rahane was at a press conference. There was a twinkle in his eyes. It was just a few days after his month-old daughter’s naming ceremony in Mumbai. He and his wife, childhood sweethearts, had decided to call their first-born Arya. In the last six Tests, with scores of 81, 102, 64, 115, he was averaging over 80. Life was much better than that glum summer in England when all he got from people was sympathy.

At the press conference, Rahane, was asked about the possibility of his Test runs pushing his ODI case. After a bit of dilly-dallying, he cleared his throat so that he got heard right: “My goal is to be No.4 in ODI.”

His Mumbai mate Shreyas Iyer had almost cemented his place at No.4 but the new Rahane wasn’t being politically correct or overly courteous. He was for once pushing his own case.

Ajinkya Rahane plays a shot during day 1 of the 3rd test match between India and South Africa at JSCA Cricket Stadium, in Ranchi in October. (ANI Photo)

Since his first-class debut a decade back, Rahane has seen several selection day setbacks. The list of those who have got preferred over him, across formats, over the years, is long: Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav, Vijay Shankar, KL Rahul. Still Rahane has survived, he keeps coming back. He remains in contention to be acknowledged as an all-format player.

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While in England during the World Cup, when his county stint wasn’t going too well after the great start, Rahane was told that Sourav Ganguly was looking for him. The former India captain wasn’t yet the BCCI president, but the Delhi Capitals mentor.

When Rahane met Ganguly, he was told about the Delhi IPL side’s plans to sign him up. Capitals, after falling at the final hurdle in their first IPL season, were looking for experience. Rahane fitted the bill. Ganguly’s endorsement of him as a T20 player softened the ODI blow, it also gave him the much-needed confidence for Test matches.

At Capitals, he would be playing under his junior in the Mumbai dressing room, Iyer, but the nod from one of India’s sharpest and most influential cricketers helped.

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It was around the same time that Rahul Dravid was settling as the National Cricket Academy (NCA) director. Over the years, Rahane has considered Dravid his mentor. The two were inseparable at Rajasthan Royals. Off and on when Dravid would take time out to talk to Indian batsmen, Rahane, along with Cheteshwar Pujara, would eat the brains of India’s most successful No.3. During the 2014 England tour, when Dravid was India’s batting consultant, Rahane had scored his famous hundred at Lord’s.

With the heavy Mumbai monsoon disrupting his training before the home series against South Africa and Bangladesh, Rahane made a habit of packing his bags and boarding a flight to Bangalore. Those at the NCA say, Rahane and Dravid would be seen having lengthy sessions. This again played a big role in Rahane turning the clock. The batsman who first stood out of the crowd for his uncomplicated technique and a knack of hitting most balls from the meat of his bat was back to doing what he was known for.

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At No.5 in Tests, Rahane provides a much-needed cushion to the Indian batting line-up. He allows the batsmen before him to play their natural game. The three strokemakers in the Top 4 - Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal and Virat Kohli — can be aggressive while Cheteshwar Pujara can be an accumulator. The assurance that a batsman with 10,000 plus first class runs at 40-plus average, is to follow, is a stress buster for others. It also allows the team management to pick the extra fifth bowler.

At Indore, India were at 119/3, Virat Kohli was out for a duck, and the home dressing room was a shade nervous. The Bangladesh new ball bowler Abu Jayed Rahi had taken all the wickets. With his sharp swing and precise off the pitch moment, he had got Pujara and Kohli in the morning session.

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Rahane, soon after his arrival on the pitch, would disrupt his rhythm by stepping out of the crease. Rahi would bowl short to peg him back. But this was no ordinary No.5, and Rahane, with his balanced stance, would rock back and cut him.

He would play the sherpa to the mountain trekker Agarwal. A few balls after he survived a close DRS while trying to paddle sweep offie Mehedy Hasan, Agarwal once again tried to turn to square against the same bowler. It was a risky shot, Rahane would shout out advice from the non-striker’s end. With his bat, he would show Agarwal that the way to play the offie was straight, not square.

Rahane got out just 14 short of his hundred, it’s a knock that the half-filled Holkar Stadium wouldn’t remember after Agarwal’s 200. But in the dressing room, they never forget a batsman who took the score from 119/3 to 309/4.