Two very special Indian cricketers have scored centuries in the Indian Premier League (IPL) on my birthday, April 15, and both are Mumbaikars. Sachin Tendulkar scored a 100 v Kochi Tuskers at the Wankhede in 2011, while Ajinkya Rahane scored a scintillating 60-ball 103 at Bangalore in 2012.
I would appreciate the latter more because it came from a player who is a bit of an anachronism. He is shy when compared to most of his batting counterparts in the Indian cricket team at present, but has a better temperament. And batting greats are always remembered for that extra bit.
Rahane is a fitting example of the famous Dravid quote, “God’s delays are not God’s denials.” He was a part of the Indian Test squad that played 16 Test matches in 16 months. During that period, he was expected to make his debut at least 4 times. But seven other players made their debut for India while Rahane was deemed fit only to carry drinks. One day, he was playing for India A, against England; the next day, he was playing for Mumbai in Ranji, and a week later he was carrying drinks for India.
He was shifted between teams, formats and batting positions. For over a year, the Indian selectors couldn’t decide if Rahane should open the innings or bat in the middle order. Finally, Sandeep Patil, the new selector, decided that Rahane should bat in the middle order. Even the Mumbai Ranji team was asked to make him bat lower down than his usual No. 3 spot.
And how has that worked out? The right-hander was picked for the demanding tour of South Africa to face Dale Steyn and co. He responded by scoring a gutsy 96 on a seaming Durban track against the most astute and, arguably, the fastest bowling attack in the world.
A few months later, on the tour to New Zealand, he scored a “graceful” 118 at Wellington and put the Indians in a position to win the game. The word ‘graceful’ is specially added because it is not every day that one jumps out of the seat on witnessing a cover-drive, a straight-drive or a flick. It was an innings decorated with impeccable footwork and timing, and a real treat.
However, the moment of glory was the 100 at Lord’s just because he batted on a green top. Born and raised on the dusty, low bounce wickets of Bombay – generally called “Paata” or flat decks (one of the reasons why Bombay school tournaments see so many big hundreds year after year), Rahane showed character in his batting. He was much more at home at the crease, negotiating the movement off the wicket, whereas the other Indian batsman struggled to even stay on for a while.
The century at Lord’s will always be remembered as one of the finest overseas 100 by an Indian player. At a juncture when the Indian cricket is going through its biggest transition, the 26-year-old could be seen as the mainstay of the Indian batting, overseas.
Rahane, however, has been an under-performer in the One Day International (ODI) arena. That is majorly because his position has never been constant. He opened the innings during the recently concluded England series (only due to an injury to Rohit Sharma) and scored at an average of 48.0. His 100 was an exhibition of belligerent drives, square cuts, leg glances, and pull shots in conditions where the ball bounced and swung both ways. This is the specialty of the overseas tours: we find players who rise above the ordinary to announce their arrival.
In 1992, we found Tendulkar in Australia. During the England tour in 1996, we found two fine young men in Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. The 2013 tour of Australia unearthed the run-machine Virat Kohli. I would say Rahane was the discovery of the 2014 England tour, just when Indian cricket desperately needed someone like him.
This is the question we need to ask ourselves now: Is this the tipping point for the Indian team as they prepare for the long tour to Australia and the World Cup (WC) in 2015? Rahane seems to have provided a solution to one of the biggest problems of the Indian cricket. India does not need to find another specialist opener anymore. You pick Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma , and you pick Rahane. He will provide the team with the flexibility of carrying another specialist middle order batsman or an extra bowler in the squad.
As far as history goes, India has always struggled with the openers on overseas tours, but, this time around, I believe we have a one-stop solution in Rahane. We are fortunate enough to have a promising player who can bat as a makeshift opener and score runs with some consistency.
Rahane’s Test career so far has an uncanny resemblance to that of Dilip Vengsarkar’s. Vengsarkar and Rahane have their Test batting average in the high forties against the best bowling attack of their respective times (West Indies and South Africa respectively). Both have scored a 100 at Lord’s resulting in the only Indian victories at the venue. Also, Vengsarkar was experimented with different roles until he hit the purple patch at No. 3. Winning the No. 3 position from Kohli will be a massive task, but Rahane can be looked upon as an option. His technique and timing might be very similar to any other specialist batsman, but his temperament makes him stand out in the crowd.
The versatility in the batting, the ability to play on bouncy wickets and the hunger to play big knocks will see him evolve into a much better player. You never know, on that cold morning on February 15, 2015, as India gets ready to chase a 250-odd against Pakistan, we might have to be prepared to take notes on what could turn out to be one of Rahane’s most elegant knocks.