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The plucky Ajinkya Rahane

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Ajinkya_Rahane_India_cricketIndian cricket has been blessed with some exceptional batting talent over the years. It is a country which produces one exceptional batsman after another, so that there has never been an era where the team has felt a dearth of it, just as Pakistan produces bowlers.

India, a country with batsmen like Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, was apprehensive about the future prospects in Test cricket after the retirement of Fab 4: Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly. They were the core of Indian batting for over a decade and losing them after being accustomed to that batting line up would certainly leave a crater to fill.

The coveted number four place in the batting line up was not yet up for grabs with Sachin still playing in Tests (after his retirement it was owned by the dynamic Virat Kohli). Kohli batted at number three when Ajinkya Rahane made his debut at number five against Australia in the final match of a home series. Though he made his ODI debut two years earlier, a look at his technique and grit made everyone realise he is tailor-made for the sturdiest format, Test cricket.

With the IPL booming, Rahane had to make modifications to his playing style but never compromised on his technique. Opening the batting for most of his IPL games, he is known for his aesthetic stroke play in a format which mostly belongs to unconventional or belligerent batting. In a game of powerful stroke making, he soothes his way through with cover drives and straight drives. Sticking to his basic technique he had made a colossal contribution to the Rajasthan Royals.

 

On occasion, Rahane has been compared to the diligent Rahul Dravid. His temperament and technique give credibility to the comparisons. Dravid started his career batting at number seven and gradually moved up the batting line up, briefly playing at number five before making the number three spot his own. Rahane, still early in his Test career, has batted at number three in 2 matches of the 22 he has played. In fact, he scored a century at this position versus Sri Lanka, and that too in the second innings. That experiment ended with the return of Cheteshwar Pujara. But with his ability to change his game easily, the number three spot might be a place for him to bat.

After making his debut he had to wait nine months for his next match, which was against South Africa in South Africa. Facing pacers like Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, the youngster showcased his mettle in the first innings with a valiant 47 batting at number six. He made the case for belonging to this level in the second Test where he scored 51* and 96 on a pacy and bouncy Durban track, with the fiery, venomous Steyn steaming in and bowling bouncers at his body.

Rahane survived the body blows and never showed any dip in his resilience or his attitude as he remained unbeaten at the end of first innings. While Steyn was merciless, Philander’s skilful seam bowling made Rahane dance to his tunes. Though India lost that Test, they found a third gem to the Indian test line up, after Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane.

Over the next 12 months or so, Rahane would have to be content with the pitches outside the sub continent. Pitches with pace, bounce, swing and what not. The conditions which every subcontinent batsman found unnatural compared to the spinning, dusty, low-on-bounce pitches at home.

 

India travelled to South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia for Tests before returning to the subcontinent. Rahane scored a century at tours to New Zealand, England and Australia with a gritty 96 on the tour to South Africa. India now had a player on whom they could rely whenever they travelled abroad; who had an equally good technique against pace, swing and spin; a player they could call ‘The Wall’ after the retirement of Rahul Dravid. To start one’s career playing in such difficult conditions, a lesser player would have succumbed. But not Rahane.

If playing outside the subcontinent was considered an arduous job, playing at home was worse. In the home series against South Africa, all batsmen faced a nightmare situation with only one team total in excess of 300 and seven totals under 200 out of 13 innings in a 4-Test series. The spinners were unplayable on most of the occasions as the ball turned square. Only two centuries were scored in this Test series and both were by Ajinkya Rahane. He finished with an average of 53.20 with the next best average being 36.85. After this series he quashed any lingering doubts regarding his batting in difficult spinning conditions.

Rahane, being a natural Test match player, often found it difficult to score quick runs in the ODI format. Even MS Dhoni was of the view that, in ODIs on slow pitches, Rahane encountered problems in rotating the strike. As the top three spots were claimed by Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, Rahane had to fight against his natural instinct and bat at number four or five in the ODIs to be in the XI, just as Dravid had to keep the wickets to maintain his spot in the ODI XI.

But this was not 2005. The pace of the game had changed, which meant that runs were to be scored at brisk pace in the middle overs as well. With Rahane relying on finesse and timing it seemed a bad move to play him at a slot other than opening. But with innings of 87 off 58 balls against South Africa and 89 off 80 balls against Australia, both coming while batting at four, the apprehensions soon died out.

Dravid has always been a silent performer and his contribution is not as celebrated as Tendulkar’s. Let us just hope this isn’t repeated in case of the new number four, Virat Kohli, and hopefully soon to be number three, the plucky Ajinkya Rahane.

 

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