Ajinkya Rahane has firmly established himself in the Indian middle order in tests, but his one day international career is nothing to write home about. 50 odd one-day internationals and 15 tests look like a ridiculously low number for someone who has been with the Indian team for the best part of the last 4 years.
My first memories of Ajinkya Rahane date back to 2009, when I turned up for the Ranji Trophy semi-final that was played between Mumbai and Saurashtra in Chepauk. The match featured several of the current Indian stars including Pujara, Jadeja, Rohit Sharma, Rahane, Dhawal Kulkarni, and that man who made me take the 400 kilometer trip to the stadium, Sachin Tendulkar. Rahane, to me at least, was an unknown entity. Mumbai had won the toss and elected to bat. I was licking my lips at the prospect of watching Sachin bat for the best part of the day.
The first wicket fell pretty early, and Sachin was just a wicket away. Rahane walked in, joined Wasim Jaffer at the crease and just batted on and on and on. At stumps, he was 52 not out from what seemed like a thousand balls. I couldn’t turn up to the match the next day and Sachin had scored a blistering hundred. Oh, how I hated Rahane for that! Rahane’s batting looked anything but attractive, especially with the batsmen he had around him in that stellar Mumbai batting line-up. Or it was just him still finding his feet in that squad. But he came across as someone who got the job done, vindicated further by his exploits in the next few domestic seasons where he averaged close to 60.
Rahane finally made his debut in Indian colours in 2011 at Chester-Le-Street when he, along with Parthiv Patel, provided a solid-start, only for the rain to intervene. In what remains his only consistent run in the ODI team between September-October 2011, where he played about a dozen ODI games (10 of them against England!), he failed to make a big score that would have left a lasting impression on the selectors. He played just the one ODI in 2012, thanks largely to Sehwag, Gambhir and Sachin still being around. And when he got the chance again in 2013, worryingly, he kept getting knocked over by Steven Finn, who was rearranging Rahane’s timbers when he wasn’t knocking over stumps at the bowler’s end. Serious questions were being raised about his technique against the incoming ball, his status as the reserve batsman in the test squad being questioned as well.
It wasn’t until 2014 that he got a sustained run at the top of the order and he showed his class by notching up centuries against England and Sri Lanka. Dhawan and Rohit Sharma had other ideas though. Both of them put up some astonishing numbers and played several eye catching innings to make the opening spots their own. Rahane’s only chance now was to get in to the middle-order, and when he did, did nothing to stand out among the pack. His innings against South Africa in the world cup was of the highest quality, but, he has just not done it consistently enough.
So where is the problem? It’s not that Rahane doesn’t have the quality to bat at 4, just that he hasn’t got a consistent run at that spot. And worryingly for Rahane, Dhoni now seems to have made up his mind to move up the order. Given the lack of very attractive options for the middle order (Rayudu included), Rahane still does have a chance and the game necessary to make the technical adjustments to be good bat at number 4 or 5 in that Indian line-up.
From being ‘dropped’ against Bangladesh to being made the captain in the next series, it’s been a bizarre few weeks for Rahane. He now has the responsibility of bringing together a squad that has not played together very much, and producing results against a promising Zimbabwe team. And meanwhile, he has to work out his own game, the positions he needs to bat at, and score a ton of runs wherever he bats. And who better for Rahane to look up to than Dravid? That man has been through all this before, batting at odd positions while trying to salvage a career in one day internationals. Dravid ended with 10,000 odd ODI runs, something Rahane can draw inspiration from, and is very capable of doing himself.
This series against Zimbabwe is going to be a delicate balancing act for Rahane. The pressure of captaining the team along with the pressure to earn your place back in the team. That is a weird sentence in cricket context, isn’t it?