It has been a strange 4 months in Ajinkya Rahane’s international career, as he has had to put the interests and varying blueprint of the team ahead of his favored batting position and style of batting.
The diminutive Mumbai batsman continues to be a key component of the Indian Test side, having scored three centuries and five half-centuries in his and India’s last 13 Tests, starting with the tour of England last year. Two of those hundreds – against England and Srilanka – have come in winning causes while the other hundred – an attractive 147 against Australia in the Boxing Day Test at the fag end of last year – helped India stem the home side’s winning form after they had gone 2-0 up in the four-Test series.
Batting at No. 5, mostly, Rahane has been the enforcer for India, and his shot-making ability has come to the fore in most of the 25 innings since the beginning of England’s tour. His wonderful Test form, however, has not stopped the team management from tinkering with his favored position of No.5 in the Indian Test line-up. It remains to be seen which position he bats at when India take on South Africa in the upcoming 4-match Test series. Because if Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri decide to persevere with the blueprint that saw India come from 1-0 down to win the Test series against Srilanka back in August, he could continue as No. 3, a position at which he has made 142 runs in two Tests, including a century (126).
His switch in batting positions from No. 5 to No. 3, during the series against Srilanka, was not the first instance of him having to sacrifice ‘his’ best position in the best interests of the team.
It was during India’s tour of Bangladesh, their first international assignment after losing to Australia in the semifinals of the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup earlier this year, that MS Dhoni began omitting Ajinkya Rahane, who, to be fair, has yet to prove and establish himself in the Indian One-Day International (ODI) side. The 27-year-old right-hander endured one of his poor outings with the bat in the 1st of the three ODIs against Bangladesh this past June. With India chasing 308 for victory, Rahane, batting at No. 4, mustered a mere 9(25) and in a way, played it into the home side’s hands. Yes, most Indian batsmen failed to play well against Bangladesh’s vibrant pace battery, but Rahane’s struggles stood out.
Ajinkya Rahane was dropped for the subsequent game – a do-or-die one for the Men in Blue – with Dhoni, who batted at No.4 in the game and labored his way to 47 (75), going onto say after the series-deciding defeat for India that the Mumbai batsman does not have the game suited to the dry conditions of the sub-continent.
In the series following the 2-1 loss to Bangladesh, against Zimbabwe, Rahane, in the absence of the senior players, was made the captain by the Indian selection committee, for the three-ODI series and two Twenty20 Internationals (T20Is). Maybe Rahane put too much pressure on himself to come out fighting after his place in the ODI side was threatened, and his performances against Zimbabwe evidenced the pressure he felt. Only once in the 3 ODIs did the Mumbai batsman manage a strike-rate in excess of 70 – 75.90 to be precise, during a 83-ball 63 in the second ODI – while opening the batting and looked far from the batsman who ripped the South African bowling attack to shreds in the World Cup group game, a 60-ball 79, which again came at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
Since making his ODI debut against England back in 2011, Rahane has played 58 ODIs for India, averages a highly mediocre 31, only two centuries and 10 half-centuries in his limited-overs’ career so far. But he has had this propensity to self-sabotage after getting off to starts or get out rather cheaply and considering the amount of cricket he has played, including his exploits for Rajasthan Royals (RR) in the Indian Premier League (IPL), ‘Jinks’ does not need anyone reminding him of his ODI record and why he finds himself in this situation.
Unfortunately for Rahane, his inability to cement a place in the Indian ODI side has coincided with Rohit Sharma forging a successful opening partnership with Shikhar Dhawan, and Kohli continuing to be India’s best batsman across all formats of the game. With Rohit, Dhawan and Kohli taking up the first three batting positions, Rahane can only be accommodated as a No.4 in the Indian ODI side. But his ODI career strike-rate of 76.52, which is considerably lower than any of the batsmen around him, does not work in his favor. Suresh Raina and Dhoni batting at No. 5 and No. 6, respectively, if Rahane is picked to play, would not be enviable either, for India.
What next then for Rahane?
The Mumbai batsman did not play in India’s twin T20I losses against South Africa, who have started their tour of India emphatically, as Ambati Rayudu, who has tasted plenty of success for the Mumbai Indians (MI) in the IPL while playing at No. 6, was preferred ahead of him.
Rahane’s current situation is such that he can only play at No. 4 for India in the ODIs and T20Is, if and when he does get a game. His Ranji and Mumbai teammate, Rohit, not only continues to have the support and backing of the team management, but has been largely consistent, too, in the ODIs and T20Is for a good couple of years now. Rohit also has this innate ability to make up for a slow start, which is his natural style of play, with his big hitting prowess – something that Rahane might have to cultivate.
Yes, he is capable of clearing the boundary and playing the same exquisite strokes as Rohit, but the nonchalance of the Mumbai Indians’ skipper and, of course, his better record – albeit having played 80 more ODIs than Rahane – make him as one of the first names on the team sheet, currently. And it is Rohit who currently is dictating Rahane’s place – or not having one in the playing XI – in the Indian ODI and T20I sides. How ironic is that?