Rahane needs to get his mojo back, can’t rest on laurels for long
In industry parlance, Ajinkya Rahane would be perilously close to being termed an NPA – Non-Performing Asset – which is self-explanatory. Harsh as it might be on a man who has played 77 Test appearances and fronted up manfully to leadership responsibilities in Virat Kohli’s absence, India’s long-form vice-captain is clearly on borrowed time.
Rahane was India’s leading scorer in the inaugural edition of the World Test Championship, where the team lost to New Zealand in the title round in June. He topped all-comers with 1,159 runs from 18 matches, three hundreds contributing to a handy average of 42.92. But that tells only half the tale.
Those are the 33-year-old’s only three-figure knocks in the last four years, a period during which he has batted 63 times in 38 Tests. Since scoring 132 against Sri Lanka in Colombo in August 2017, Rahane averages a modest 32.50, a run during which he lost his place for the first two Tests on the tour of South Africa in 2018. In the last five years and 48 Tests, the Mumbai right-hander’s career average has plummeted from an excellent 51.37 in his first 29 Tests to a middling 40.18, a precipitous dop of 11-plus runs per innings.
These are cold, hard, irrefutable facts. They don’t make for pretty reading, not unlike Rahane’s batting in recent times. The time to sing the redemption song has been nigh for a while, but the tunes have been off-key, the lyrics uninspiring.
Successful teams, especially, are willing to ‘carry’ under-achievers for a reasonable length of time. It could be that they are in a position to accommodate a valuable resource even if he is misfiring, because when he finally gets his act together, he can make a telling difference. It could also be that the group around him is firing on all, or at least most, cylinders, thereby giving him the breathing space to rediscover his mojo despite the guillotine hanging over his sword. India have been a successful team for a while, undoubtedly, but with the rest of the middle order mirroring Rahane’s travails over the last 18 months, how long can they afford to continue to place their eggs in the Rahane basket?
Rahane’s modes of dismissal are as much a source of concern as the drying up of runs. Like with Cheteshwar Pujara, his skipper and with Rishabh Pant, there is a sameness to his vulnerabilities that have been exposed mercilessly by England’s high-quality pace attack. His battling 61 in the second innings at Lord’s, a crucial hand that shaped India’s Phoenix-like rise from the ashes, is the only time he has got past 20 in five innings. And that’s been pretty much the Rahane story these past several months – one substantial, match-winning contribution that stands isolated in a vast sea of ordinariness.
An otherwise composed, pleasant young man with a warm smile and the patience of Job, Rahane’s usually inscrutable countenance is showing signs of stress. He isn’t unaware of his dwindling returns, so whenever he turns up at a press conference and is confronted with queries about his form, he comes up ‘I knew this question would come up’ or ‘I was waiting for this question’. Two days before the third Test at Headingley, he uncharacteristically embraced semi-sarcasm without dropping grace while reflecting on the Lord’s 61, and the flak he had received in the lead-up to what was then expected to be a breakthrough knock.
“I am happy that people are talking about me,” he said, with a fixed half-smile that didn’t desert him for even a second. “I have always believed that people talk about important people, so I am not too concerned about that. It’s all about contribution for the team.” Now, that’s precisely the point, isn’t it?
Five hits on this tour of England have yielded 95 runs at 19; apart from the run-out in his first innings of the series following a self-initiated mix-up with KL Rahul, he has been a victim of indecisive foot movement, thrice against swing/movement and once against the off-spin of Moeen Ali. Especially against the faster bowlers, he has shown a more than usual reluctance to fully commit himself, his short front-foot stride not getting him close enough to the ball for him to be in control. Once he then starts chasing late movement with only hands and static feet, the outcome is almost predictable. Nowhere is indecisiveness in foot movement more batting-fatal than in England. Rahane has repeatedly sold himself short on that front, his cause not helped by the rapid turnover of matches that precludes lengthy stints in the nets to iron out the kinks.
A five-Test series is a double-edged sword. It can either ruthlessly expose technical shortcomings, or it can reward gumption and adaptability, the ability to learn from mistakes and make minor tweaks. As patchy as his form has been, it’s more than likely that Kohli and Ravi Shastri will continue to keep the faith. It’s incumbent upon Rahane to justify the show of confidence, particularly if India stick to their ‘template’ of backing Pant at No. 6 and playing the additional bowler at the expense of a sixth specialist batting option.
Inasmuch as cricket’s a highly technical sport, not without reason is it repeatedly stressed that it is also played between the ears. When not in the best of touches, the mind can play ghastly tricks. Every pitch can resemble a minefield, every ball a grenade waiting to explode. The hands become heavy, the feet leaden, movements hesitant and out of sync. The body takes its cue from the mind, which therefore makes it essential for the clutter to be binned. There is no magic switch that will flush the uncertainty and diffidence out of the system, but that’s where the power of positive thinking and digging into an expansive memory bank to unearth joyous reinforcements become magnified. Rahane has been there, done that. He now has to rouse his confidence and belief from their prolonged slumber if this worrying slump is to be arrested. Without further delay.
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