Sunday, January 22, 2023

Ajinkya Rahane’s brief bits of brilliance may not be enough to save his Test career

Back in December 2020, India, under Ajinkya Rahane’s tutelage were hoping to extinguish the demons of Adelaide and chart an upward trajectory that would culminate in a second successive Test series triumph Down Under. Much like the 1st Test though, they found themselves under strife with the willow.

Australia, despite only making 195 in their first innings, had reduced India to 64/3 at Melbourne, with Cheteshwar Pujara, Mayank Agarwal and Shubman Gill back in the shed. Rahane, who had walked in when the score was 61/2, would’ve been forgiven to think that another Adelaide-esque capitulation was round the corner.

Yet, almost single-handedly, Rahane arrested that slide. Not only did he cream a sumptuous ton, he did so at a time when India were seemingly in the doldrums because of what had transpired at Adelaide and the fact that Virat Kohli had also departed on paternity leave.

During that innings, everything that Rahane stood for – the serene counter-puncher who waits for his moments and then seizes it like a ruthless viper, the extraordinary stroke-maker who makes top-class bowlers look pretty ordinary and the character that forces India to keep relying on Rahane when the chips are down – came to fruition.

In simpler terms, that was the essay that would write another Rahane chapter into Indian cricketing folklore and ensure that he would survive the ravages of time and be remembered as one of the guiding forces of the Kohli era – an era where India have been the premier Test outfit for large swathes.

However, just when it seemed that Rahane would scale the dizzying heights that his talent (and perhaps performances) have often warranted, it came crashing down. So much so that the Delhi Capitals batter, unless Kohli and Ravi Shastri accord him another massive shoulder to lean on, might be out of the scheme altogether by the time India return from England.

Rahane has been in woeful form
Rahane has been in woeful form

Throughout his career, Rahane has seemed like someone capable of holding his own in adverse conditions. For a large part of his Test journey, he has had a better overseas record than at home, which for an Indian batter, seems counter-intuitive on a lot of levels.

However, that has regularly been the case with Rahane, meaning that he has been as vital a cog as any, especially in overseas conditions. More recently, though, that particular record has started falling apart from the seams – something that has cast an already divisive figure under an even greyer cloud.

In Australia, despite that century at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, he only scored 268 runs in 8 innings, of which 112 came in a solitary knock. If that were to be taken away, he only scored 156 runs at a middling average of 26.

That, though, might not be a valid argument because cricket is not played that way. In cricket, when players get runs, they ensure that the volume is enough to sustain themselves during potential ruts, which as cricketers would testify, is as inevitable as death and taxes. Yet, in Rahane’s case, it is something that can’t completely be cast aside too.

Simply put, an average of 26 and a tally of 156 runs in 7 innings isn’t a lot to shout home about. Not just because Rahane played most of that series as the captain and someone India were hoping would lead from the front, but also because he was one of the five primary batters India fielded post the debacle at Adelaide.

In the home rubber against England, where pitches resembled dust bowls, Rahane fared worse. Though that was expected, considering the right-handed batter has even been termed a “liability” at times, it still wasn’t befitting of a top-notch middle order batter and the vice-captain of the Indian cricket team.

Even in that series, Rahane had one good innings – a fifty-plus score at Chennai, where he forged a series-changing partnership alongside Rohit Sharma. However, when he needed to kick on, he slipped into the periphery just as swiftly.

He scored 112 runs in that rubber, including the 67 at Chennai. If that knock were to be removed, he boasted a grand total of 45 runs in 5 innings, which roughly translates to an average of 9.

In the World Test Championship final too, plenty of Rahane’s followers quipped that he ended the game as India’s highest-run scorer. The two opportunities he had to arrest or prevent Indian batting slides, though, he failed miserably, despite being well established at the crease in the first essay.

The problem with Rahane is not that he has not scored runs. He has and if stats are to be believed, he was also India’s highest run scorer in the previous World Test Championship cycle. The discrepancy is that he hasn’t been able to capitalize on those nor has he been able to shoulder the run-scoring burden of those around him, especially at times when others might need a hint of security.

The numbers are a touch skewed too, for most of those aforementioned runs came against Bangladesh and South Africa at home – teams that hardly mirror the kind of challenge that the likes of Australia, England and New Zealand pose.

As far as Test hundreds are concerned, Rahane hasn’t scored one since the Boxing Day ton. And, has only notched up two fifty-plus scores during that period – another damning indictment of a batter that seems to be out of his depth. As things stand, his lowest interval between two Test centuries is six innings. It has now been 20 innings since that Melbourne epic, by the way.

Ajinkya Rahane’s technical flaws have been exposed

Rahane has struggled to score runs in England this series
Rahane has struggled to score runs in England this series

Apart from that, there have been several technical deficiencies that have crept into his game. He has started falling over, as was exposed by Chris Woakes and a tendency to poke at deliveries that he ought to be leaving or attacking with more conviction – something that Craig Overton exploited.

Thus, as things stand, Rahane is getting beaten on the inside and the outside and from a larger standpoint, being turned inside out by any bowler that has marked out his run-up.

Yet, he has, at least historically, almost always retained the ability to perform whenever his position in the squad is under the scanner. He did so when questions marks were abuzz at Melbourne and again did so at Chennai. To an extent, he did so at Lord’s as well in the English summer of 2021.

Thus, with him laboring to even notch up a twenty-plus score at this point, the writing seems to be on the wall. Not just because a lot of other aspects are anyway against him, but also because his trait of coming up trumps when the chips are down is beginning to desert him too.

If one were to put oneself in the Indian team management’s shoes, one might understand why they want to persist with Rahane because somewhere in there, they feel there is still a Test cricketer waiting to fulfil his potential and shape a career that is threatening to unravel dramatically.

However, if he continues to put the team into perilous situations and becomes the root of it, rather than being the solution, India might have to seriously rejig their approach.

Over the years, when India have opted to look the other way during Rahane’s troughs, they’ve almost always been vindicated shortly. Now, though, it seems that they might have reached a point of no return.

And, if India seriously harbor hopes of world domination in Test cricket, they might be better served with a batter who might not be capable of conjuring as much occasional oomph as Rahane but one able to produce notable batting performances more consistently.

From that perspective then, it seems that even Rahane’s brief bouts of brilliance might not be enough to save his Test career. And that knock at Melbourne, which was supposed to be the starting point of a fruitful and remarkable final phase of his career, might perhaps become the anomaly and more unfortunately, the crux of another classic “what could’ve been” case.

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