Virat Kohli’s absence now leaves Team India with a massive void as they stare at three more Tests against a bowling line-up that bundled them for record-low.
Kohli, the batsman, is invaluable, and so is Kohli, the persona. But before he left for India, Kohli told the media to not make a mountain out of the molehill. The number 36 makes a molehill appear as a mountain. The scars and the psychological impact will be larger than most mountains.
Ajinkya Rahane, a character different from Kohli, takes charge as the captain. He stares at another peak, i.e. defending India's Border-Gavaskar Trophy – the chances of which looks bleak. The bare minimum expectation would be to add some points to India’s ICC World Test Championship Points Tally. It has been over a year since India added anything to it. With no Kohli, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma, the challenge looks stiffer.
The very first time when Ajinkya Rahane, the captain, was thrown to a challenge was during the Dharamsala Test in March 2017. If Kohli’s injury wasn’t already a concern, the conditions at the hilly venue favoured Australia’s pacers. Rahane displayed an attacking brand of leadership to help India win the series 2-1 and reclaimed the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Circumstances have changed in the past three and a half years, and so has Rahane’s reputation as a cricketer.
Ajinkya Rahane's Career Analyzed
Let us break Rahane’s career into fragments and analyze the batsman.
With a First-Class average in the late 60s, Rahane was breaking open the selection doors in the early 2010s. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman had retired. Sachin Tendulkar was at the brink. India needed young batsmen, and Ajinkya Rahane looked like a good investment.
He made his India debut in the one-off T20I in England in 2011 and impressed with a 61 while opening the batting. By the time India played the next World Cup in 2015, Ajinkya Rahane was India’s No.4. He rose as a key player for Rajasthan Royals (RR) in the IPL. We were looking at an all-format batsman.
Sticking to Test cricket.
Phase 1: Rahane, the man of all seasons
Despite the dominance at home, Cheteshwar Pujara failed to make a mark overseas. Ajinkya Rahane looked like a different breed. Out of the first 18 Tests, he played 17 overseas. He made an immediate mark. Though India lost the series in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia, Rahane impressed on every tour. He got a 96 in South Africa and centuries in New Zealand, England, Australia and Sri Lanka.
The Test-leg of South Africa tour of India 2015-16 was played on minefields. Batsmen from both the sides struggled to make a mark, but Ajinkya Rahane with twin tons on a challenging track at Delhi scripted India's win. Here it was, India seemed to have found a player for all seasons.
By the end of the New Zealand tour in 2016-17 season, India rose to the No.1 spot in Test cricket, and Rahane boasted of enviable numbers.
During the same phase, Ajinkya Rahane was India’s best batsman along with Kohli in the overseas Tests.
Phase 2: The big fall
Rahane was appointed Kohli’s deputy. It was fitting that the two best batters in the Test side were a part of the leadership group.
The England series in the 2016-17 season saw an inconsistent Ajinkya Rahane in the first three Tests before an injury ruled him out. Karun Nair played and slammed a triple ton in the final Test of the series. Once Rahane was fit, Nair was forced to make way.
In the next 11 Tests since the England series to the Sri Lanka tour, Ajinkya Rahane was far from his fluent best. There were glimpses of brilliance in Dharamsala and during the Sri Lanka tour. Rahane averaged 37.5 during this period, whereas Pujara and Kohli averaged 62.6 and 69 respectively.
In the next two years, Ajinkya Rahane was a pale shadow of his former self. He was dropped in South Africa. In the tours of England and Australia, he didn't inspire.
Indian batsmen overseas during the above period
Rahane’s inability to make a difference in crunch situations led to India’s batting fall in England. Kohli found little support in the middle-order. During this phase, even Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya averaged higher than Ajinkya Rahane.
No other Indian cricketer would have remained in the side after the consistent string of failures.
Sourav Ganguly was the captain in 2004 when his batting form dipped big time. In the calendar years of 2004 and 2005, Ganguly scored 657 Test runs at 34.57. During the same time, Virender Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman averaged 63.55, 62.52, 67.95 and 37.81 respectively.
Ganguly’s poor run with the bat cost him not only his captaincy but also a place in the side.
Ajinkya Rahane remained the vice-captain. By now, he had lost his place in the limited-overs setup. As a Test specialist, his average that lurked near the 50-mark now had plunged to the 40-mark.
Phase 3: The promise, the struggles and the challenge
The team management ignored Rohit Sharma’s rich form during the 2019 tour of West Indies. Instead, they played Ajinkya Rahane, who repaid the faith by slamming two fifties and a century in four innings. He continued with his form in the home season, registering three fifties and a century. Rahane averaged 71.33 from the eight Tests he played in 2019.
Just when it seemed that India had solved the Rahane problem, the New Zealand tour proved otherwise. It was a nightmarish tour for the Indian batters as the side lost the series 0-2. Ajinkya Rahane got starts in Wellington (46 and 29) but failed in Christchurch (7 and 9).
More than those scores, what surprised more was Rahane’s approach against short bowling. In the Christchurch Test, Rahane struggled to cope up with bouncers dished out by Kylie Jamieson and Neil Wagner. After coping several blows on body and helmet, he tried shuffling across the stumps, and even that didn't look convincing.
It was probably the ugliest display by a top-order batsman against short-pitch bowling. He eventually perished trying to pull Wagner, when he dragged the ball to the stumps.
Later this year, Rahane wasn’t even finding a place in the starting line-up of his new IPL side Delhi Capitals (DC).
When the BCCI announced Kohli’s unavailability after the first Test in the Australian tour, the team management made it clear that Rahane would lead. Even during his interview session with Steve Smith, Kohli backed Rahane to do well as a batsman in Australia.
The Rahane-problem in the Adelaide Test
Rahane looked fluent during his stay at the crease alongside Kohli in the first innings. The captain and his lieutenant added 88 for the fourth wicket before the horrendous mix-up that led to the former's run out. In hindsight, that wicket changed the course of Indian innings and the Test.
Problem 1: It was Rahane’s call that led to Kohli’s run out. Earlier this season, an in-form Suryakumar Yadav sacrificed his wicket to protect his captain Rohit Sharma, who was a more set batsman in the IPL final. It was Rohit’s call.
In February, Rishabh Pant, who was beginning to look good in the Wellington Test, would go on to sacrifice his wicket to protect Rahane as the latter was more established. Again, it was Rahane’s call, and Pant did not fault.
The expectations went – couldn’t Ajinkya Rahane do the same for the best batsman of the side who was better set?
Problem 2: In the Adelaide Test of 2003-04, a horrible mix-up led between Dravid and an in-form Ganguly led to the latter’s run out. A distraught Dravid went on to play the finest innings of his career to guide India to one of its most memorable wins.
With Kohli out, it was Ajinkya Rahane's turn to stand up and grind it in the middle. He followed his captain soon after the new ball was taken, falling to a straight-ish full-ball from Mitchell Starc. He had his front foot glued to the crease and the ball found his back pad.
On the other hand, Prithvi Shaw was being pilloried across social media for his technical gaffes. Here’s Ajinkya Rahane, the vice-captain, playing his 66th Test and is into his eighth year as a Test cricketer. There was more to come.
Problem 3: Unlike Pujara or Mayank Agarwal, did Ajinkya Rahane receive something unplayable in the second innings? It was instead the movement of his front foot. The delivery from Josh Hazlewood was much fuller, but Ajinkya Rahane did not get forward and just poked at the ball.
With his experience, the expectations are more – technically and also mentally. It’s high time that Ajinkya Rahane stops playing around a Kohli or Pujara and instead dictates terms on his own.
Rahane isn't doing enough. With a bowling line-up like India's, it's the batting overdependency on Kohli that has hampered the side's progress, especially overseas. Pujara stepped up in 2018-19 Australia tour, and we saw the difference.
The management's support and leadership in the next three Tests could allow Ajinkya Rahane to prove himself. He has done it before. Maybe the adjustment is more mental. If Rahane, the batsman, leads from the front, Indian cricket will be better served in the times to come, and if not, it's time to move on. There’s quite a long queue.Published 21 Dec 2020, 13:31 IST