Windies 2019: Testing Times Ahead for Rahane, Ashwin

India's Ajinkya Rahane celebrates with Ravichandran Ashwin (back) after South African batsman Graeme Smith (not seen) took a direct hit on the fourth day of the first cricket Test between South Africa and India at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg on December 21, 2013. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Two stalwarts of Indian cricket find themselves in the unenviable position of having to prove their worth when they take guard against the West Indies in a couple of days. Both Ajinkya Rahane and Ravichandran Ashwin are returning to the side, more than nine months after they last turned out for India in that historic win Down Under.

Rahane appears to be struggling with a loss of form, possibly rooted in his own mental tuning. While Cheteshwar Pujara has made his peace with playing only Tests, the Indian Test vice-captain seems to be taking his ouster from white-ball cricket rather badly, and this seems to be affecting his red ball cricket.

From his debut till the end of 2016 when he was playing all formats, Rahane had played 32 Tests, scoring 2272 runs at a healthy average of 47.33 with eight centuries and nine fifties. His overseas numbers were even more impressive, scoring at over 55 runs for India. And yet, the Mumbaikar found himself in the lurch for two of three matches against South Africa last year.

Of course, post his return for the final Test at Johannesburg where he played a match-turning knock in the second innings to help India win the game, Rahane has been off the boil. In fact, from 2017 onwards, he has played 24 Tests, returning 1216 runs at an average of 32 with just one century and eight fifties. Something to worry about indeed, though this gutsy cricketer has time and again turned the corner and saved India the blushes.

As for Ashwin, the crafty off-spinner has had an even longer break from the game, after he took ill post India’s first Test against Australia last December. Having bowled a whopping 83 overs and grabbed six wickets, Ashwin missed out the rest of the series due to a stomach strain and was replaced by Ravindra Jadeja.

In fact, the off-spinner probably played that one game with an injury that was aggravated thereafter, forcing the team to keep him out. And in that game, Ashwin held the Australian batsmen in check from one end while the fast bowlers did their thing to help India win the game. Of course, he also managed to scalp six of the twenty wickets that fell.

Yet, when Kuldeep Yadav took five wickets in the drawn final Test, coach Ravi Shastri sent out a tracer bullet suggesting that the Chinaman bowler could well be the first-choice spinner for India in away games. Honestly! A bowler who has over 340 wickets in Tests and is looked up to by peers like Nathan Lyon deserves better treatment from his coach.

By his own lofty standards, Ashwin would be the first to accept that his wicket-taking prowess hasn’t been at its best in recent times. A haul of 50 wickets from 13 matches isn’t what you expect from him though what we tend to forget is that Ashwin was the designated run-controller in seven of these games, including four in England where he once again managed to do the job of holding one end up.

However, unlike Rahane, the off-spinner went back to the drawing board and bowled with guile during the IPL. His team may have failed to make the cut, but his bowling suggested that Ashwin was indeed back with more variations and a burning desire to nail the only format he turns out for these days.

In fact, both Rahane and Ashwin spent time playing county cricket and the latter was definitely one of the successes in the circuit, turning in match-winning performances for Nottinghamshire. Why he returned to play the low-profile TNPL T20 tournament instead of honing his skills further in English conditions is indeed something that didn’t make sense.

While it is true that players need to constantly reinvent themselves and contribute regularly with their performances, especially in the light of India’s cricketing assembly line producing serious talent year after year, the captain and the coach need to keep in mind that senior statesmen have a role to play in the toughest format of the game.

It may also help if they realize that left-arm Chinamen haven’t had a history of Test match success ever; to push Yadav into all formats at this juncture can only erode his confidence, something that was more than visible in last year’s IPL as well as during India’s World Cup campaign, where he had to cede ground to Yuzvendra Chahal in most matches.

Maybe Shastri should keep his tracer bullets under wraps for some time and let the Test specialists do their job.

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