As a triple ton was launched, an injured player seated far away from the by-lanes of the Chepauk looked on in melancholic delight. Of course, he was glad that his countryman had reaped the benefits of his hard work and scripted history but his wry smile hinted at an underlying pathos, hidden cleverly between his applauds. Karun Nair’s scintillating knock of an unbeaten 303 was cheered lustily by both cricket fanatics in India and abroad but it would not be a hyperbole to suggest that Ajinkya Rahane felt threatened.
No, not in an envious way. Neither was it vengeful. Nope, not hatred either. It was just an inexplicable uneasiness. A strange fluttering in the stomach; knowing that the contemporary had grabbed onto that one chance that had been given to him. The one who had been drafted in after he had been injured. Whilst the runs had been eluding him, leading to queries on his spot in the side, Nair entered and struck gold straight away.
But not all beings remain as fortunate as Rahane. Such had been his impact that skipper Virat Kohli refused to hesitate while ousting Nair from the final eleven once Rahane was fit and raring to go. Such had been his legacy and his imprint in his previous games that even a once-in-a-lifetime feat was ignored for consistency and class. By bestowing the right-hander with an uninhibited faith in his credentials, Kohli stamped Rahane’s importance in the squad.
Yes, it was an honour to be in held in such high stead by your own captain, but for Rahane it remained a matter of great responsibility. The pressure had increased manifold and the glaring eyes were fixed even sternly than before. As if his extended poor patch had not been enough, the constant reminder of Nair closing in on his heels in case of a failure mentally harassed him. The calmness that had defined the Mumbaikar paved the way for a streak of overt eagerness, both in Tests and in the Indian Premier League, where Stephen Fleming, Rahane’s coach in the Rising Pune Supergiants, expressed his concerns over the batsman’s over-eager determination to prove that he indeed did belong. In the shorter formats. In the Test arena. In Indian Cricket.
It was this desperation however that clipped the wings of this zealous vice-captain. Since his return from injury after a two-month injury layoff, the score of 50 has been breached just four times in ten games, which includes the 132 against Sri Lanka in Colombo. The century had taken him 18 innings and 10 months, scored after his 188 against New Zealand in 2016.
In 16 innings, he has managed to score a mere 543 runs since the beginning of the year. Even in the current series against Sri Lanka, Rahane has stood lurking in the shadows of his teammates, who have amply cashed in on the weak bowling attack that the Lankans have had to offer, making just 6 in three innings, including a duck at the Eden Gardens.
For a player who was once considered India’s most dependable bat, the above numbers throw in a worry.
Contrary to the belief that sways around which tags the Indian batsmen as the best players of spin, Rahane’s complete lack of dominance over them at home raises slight eyebrows. He has been dismissed by Nathan Lyon two times in the four games played against Australia. In fact, eight of his fourteen dismissals, since Bangladesh toured India in February, have been scalped by spinners, with six of those eight dismissals going to a left-arm spinner. Further, he averages a whopping 52 against Mitchell Starc in the same interim while against Steve O’Keefe, who is expected to be a lesser demon than Starc, Rahane’s average falls to 15.50.
Yet, it would be foolish to eradicate the player at all costs. Unlike the other batsmen, who struggle in overseas conditions and script runs in familiar ones, a case in point being Cheteshwar Pujara, Rahane has the tenacity to flourish in overcast conditions, with seam and bounce on offer. While his average at home is 35.64 with three tons, his away average reads 53.44 with six centuries, including ones in Australia, England, New Zealand, West Indies and a 96 in South Africa. He averages an impressive 57 in Australia; 54 in New Zealand and an even better 69.66 in South Africa.
And maybe that is why Kohli admits to the indispensability of Rahane. However, it in no way can excuse his shortcomings on home soil for a prolonged period with both Rohit Sharma and Nair staking a claim to the number five spot. Should he make way for Rohit in the third Test against Sri Lanka, thereby offering the latter an opportunity to increase his confidence after his hundred and strengthen India’s bench strength ahead of South Africa? Or should Rahane continue with his place, so that he can be given a last chance to perform and gain momentum in the white flannels ahead of the all-important tour, where he is expected to play a huge role?
The tactics rest with Kohli but it’s rest assured that the next eighteen months for Indian cricket remains a challenging sojourn- bouldered with menacing pace and uneven bounce and it is there that Rahane will be needed in all his might.