The role of a cricket captain is not an enviable one. First and foremost, he is responsible for the team’s performance. To achieve good results, he needs to keep an eye on the whole squad, noting which player is in-form, who is shaping up well in the nets, and who is pushing hard to make a claim for the first eleven.
Then, keeping all these factors in mind, he has to pick the best possible eleven that gives him a high chance of victory. Herein, there are other things to worry about – batting order, bowling combination, fielding positions, over-rate, run-rate, et al. At the end of the game, he needs to analyze what went right or wrong as per the result, and what can be done to improve further.
It is an onerous job, one that allows little time to think about your own game, make improvements to it, and indeed stay consistent, for the skipper’s name must be the first one on the team-list. It is also a thankless job, especially in the Indian context, because after all these boxes have been ticked, there is the small matter of pleasing a billion-plus people watching back home.
And all of them cannot be impressed at the same time.
Somewhere in Harare, during net practice on Thursday, when the issue of the first eleven for the opening ODI against Zimbabwe (on Friday) comes into contention, this realization will dawn upon Ajinkya Rahane. Having played all three formats at the highest level, it’s not that he hasn’t seen other captains perform these duties, or that he isn’t aware of the drill. Yet he has only ever led a cricket team in two matches – that is not a whole lot of personal experience to fall back on.
Moreover, Rahane’s task is made tougher as he has a completely different set of players to pick from. The team that set forth for Zimbabwe is a second-string side, with everyone jousting for places, or indeed their future, in the Indian team. With only three ODIs and two T20Is to play, it will be a tough ask to accommodate everyone as well as give them a fair run at making an impression.
The bowling options should be the easier pick. He has seen Dhawal Kulkarni, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohit Sharma from up close for quite a while, and although their pace is pretty similar, they will be the first choice bowlers. Sandeep Sharma might just have to wait for that debut cap, unless the new captain is feeling adventurous. Harbhajan Singh and Axar Patel are the two spin options, and if he wants to mix it up with just one spinner and some more batting at number seven, Stuart Binny is there.
Ambati Rayudu and Manoj Tiwary should be the middle-order picks, with Kedar Jadhav and Manish Pandey battling it out for the third spot. That leaves Murali Vijay, Robin Uthappa and Rahane himself, for the top three slots. Clearly picking the top six batsmen, and deciding who bats where afterwards, will be a most interesting question for the skipper to answer.
The key to solving this puzzle will be Rahane’s own batting spot. Should he continue to bat at number four and prove a point to MS Dhoni? Should he move up the order and open the innings, batting at a position to which his game is most suited? Or should he revert to a pre-World Cup experimental number three?
It is a most vital question, one whose answer might draw up the blueprint for India’s ODI plans for the 2017 Champions Trophy and indeed the 2019 World Cup, as and when the rebuilding process starts. It is beyond obvious that the batting order needs to be revisited once again, especially with Dhoni’s looming exit from the international scene kept in mind. And in this light, Rahane isn’t someone to be kept out of the ODI first-eleven under any circumstance.
By resting Dhoni and Virat Kohli, the selectors have perhaps underlined Rahane’s value to Indian cricket by making him skipper. They have also given him a free pass: Go ahead and choose where you want to bat. Make the decision. Show us what you can do!
This is where the captaincy role will pull at his thinking. Time and again, Rahane has shown that he is a selfless player. Over the years, he waited patiently for his chance, arriving on the scene early but being made to wait for others deemed more talented. His initial opening foray in ODIs was short-lived, as was his Test debut.
When the away tours began, he rose on the back of his performances. Yet, he never played for his maiden hundred in the company of tail-enders, missed in Durban and then scored in Wellington. In England, he kowtowed the management’s strategy of attacking Moeen Ali although it was clearly against his personal gameplan. In the lead-up to the all-important World Cup, he quietly accepted getting shafted up and down the batting order. Then came that expansive shot for six, whilst batting on 98 against Bangladesh, always thinking of the team first as India looked to garner quick runs.
The underlying point is that putting his team first is embedded in Rahane’s natural fabric. In that respect, he is perhaps Rahul Dravid’s true successor, the quintessential team-man of this current era. For once though, with all the power the selectors have vested in him, he needs to be selfish and choose where he wants, nay needs, to bat in ODIs.
As the captain and senior-most batsman in this touring side, will he do it?