Ajinkya Rahane, India Test team, cricket, WTC final
Rahane played last of his 82 Tests in January 2022, against South Africa in Cape Town.

The Rahane conundrum: Is it time to focus on the future?

“Hopefully it’s just a matter of an innings, a matter of a game where he can turn it around.”

How often have we heard these words, about the same batsman, from different voices? This latest endorsement came at the conclusion of the Kanpur stalemate, another game in which “he” failed to cover himself in glory with the bat following efforts of 35 and 4.

The protagonist in question is Ajinkya Rahane, India’s captain at Green Park with Virat Kohli taking a break. The man who expressed the hope that the middle-order batsman “can turn it around” was Rahul Dravid, the new head coach.

It might appear unfair to single Rahane out when two more of India’s celebrated middle-order – Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli himself – have not exactly set the Test arena afire.

Pujara’s last Test hundred came in January 2019, in Sydney; Kohli hasn’t flirted with a hundred in international cricket since November 2019 and the day-night Test against Bangladesh in Kolkata.

Rahane is a far more recent centurion. After all, it was his excellent 112 in the second Test at the MCG last December that catalysed India’s spectacular turnaround in Australia, following their dramatic meltdown in the previous game in Adelaide when they were shot out for 36. That innings, with the odds heavily stacked and with Kohli having returned home on paternity leave, should have been that “one innings” the Indian team management had been looking forward to. Unfortunately, that has since proved to be a false dawn.

In 12 subsequent Tests and 22 innings, Rahane has gone past fifty just twice; there have been two ducks and seven other single-digit scores. It’s an unedifying record, magnified by the fact that Rahane is a 79-Test veteran whose average has declined spectacularly from the early 50s in 2016 to a wobbly 39.30.

Rahane might have felt in the past that he hasn’t been treated kindly – despite being the vice-captain, for instance, he was benched for the first two Tests in South Africa in January 2018 – but he can’t complain about the long rope he has since been handed. It’s another matter that he hasn’t used that rope constructively; he might sound increasingly defiant at press conference and embrace aggressive statements as a defence mechanism, but he can’t be unaware that for all the show of support from around him, he is treading on very thin ice.

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Shreyas Iyer’s stunning debut – the younger Mumbaikar became the first Indian to score a century and a fifty in his first Test appearance – must have created a tricky conundrum for the think-tank ahead of the second Test, beginning in Mumbai on December 3. Kohli’s return to the squad means a place must be found for him. It will be interesting to see how the skipper is accommodated. India’s stated desire to play five bowlers, a game plan first introduced in 2006 when Dravid was the captain and taken to near non-negotiable heights by the Kohli-Ravi Shastri combine, should dictate that Kohli will come in at the expense of a batsman, especially with India’s hunt for World Test Championship points receiving a setback in Kanpur. Who will that batsman be?

In normal course, it ought to have been a straight swap – the incumbent for the newcomer. But when the newcomer unleashes 105 and 65, both times with the team under immense pressure, how does one overlook his claims? If India are desperate to keep Rahane in the eleven, they can find a way, of that there is little doubt. Mayank Agarwal has thrown the team management a lifeline with his poor displays in Kanpur and India could throw a makeshift opener up alongside Shubman Gill, but what message would that send out? That some people are more equal than others?

The problems with Rahane are manifold, some pertaining to technique and others to his mental state. Occasional pockets of dogged resistance, such as during the WTC final against New Zealand in June or in the second innings against England at Lord’s in August, can no longer be used to prop up his claims. For the most part, the 33-year-old has looked out of sorts, his hesitant footwork a reflection of his addled mind, the magnetic if half-hearted attraction of the bat to deliveries outside off indicative of the uncertainty that a string of low scores is bound to spark.

It’s impossible that Rahane has not worked on these facets of his game, with batting coaches former (Sanjay Bangar) and present (Vikram Rathour), as well as head coaches Shastri and now Dravid. He is also experienced enough to have his own views and thoughts. 

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Disappointingly, none of those efforts has translated into consistent results at the international level. Rahane did come into this series with a string of impressive performances for Mumbai in the 20-over Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, but whatever confidence he might have derived from his white-ball displays did not manifest themselves in the red-ball cauldron of Green Park.

Dinesh Karthik, who knows a thing or three about making runs at the international level, has suggested that a break might do Rahane a world of good. It’s hard not to see the merit of that sentiment. Unfortunately, Rahane is not in a position where, if he takes a break, he is assured of his place in the eleven as and when he makes a pitch for a comeback. It will be unfair to keep Shreyas out, as unjustified as the short shrift given to Hanuma Vihari, a hero in his last Test in Sydney in January but subsequently overlooked from the playing eleven and then dropped from the squad altogether.

Gill himself was pencilled into bat in the middle-order in Kanpur until KL Rahul’s injury necessitated him to continue to open. With enough resources at their disposal, the brains trust must decide if the Rahane rope isn’t long enough, if it’s not time to focus on the future. As an add-on, that will put Pujara, whose returns are better only in comparison, on notice too.

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