Way back in 2007, the first murmurs of Ajinkya Rahane began to surface. The year, remembered mostly for the dismal performance of the Indian cricket team in the World Cup, was also the year in which a new prodigy was unearthed.
The promise of Ajinkya Rahane
Playing against the New Zealand under-19s in a Youth Test at Dunedin, Rahane’s fluent 55 against the likes of Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Corey Anderson in the fourth innings was the only instance of an Indian player crossing 50 in that match. Virat Kohli, also playing, registered scores of 12 and 0.
In the very next Test, Rahane redefined class, scoring 56 out of the first innings total of 124. But what really made the country stand up and take notice was his 179 in the second essay, coming on the back of a huge first innings deficit of 176, which eventually saved the match for India. Add to it the fact that all these scores came as an opener in the most testing conditions for subcontinent batsmen, and there were plenty of signs of early but definite promise.
It is perhaps surprising that he had to wait four years after that to make his international debut. En route though, Rahane dished out one strong performance after another, including a scintillating innings of 187 in 2008, the then highest score in a List A match by an Indian, studded with 17 fours and eight sixes.
The innings did not go unnoticed and he was rewarded with his name featuring on the 30-man list for the Champions Trophy in Pakistan later that year. Though he did not make the final cut, the first seeds in the minds of the selectors had been sown.
Rahane had his fair share of downs as well, as he failed to put up a decent show in the series against Australia A later that year. However, he bounced back strongly, scoring his first double century against Orissa to cap off an eventful year in style. That gave Pravin Amre a reason to smile, as his continuous backing of Rahane was now beginning to show results.
The change, by Rahane’s own admission, was his increased focus. "My focus has increased in terms of doing well for Mumbai so I try to apply myself more now and focus on being in the present and nothing else," he said in an interview with ESPNCricinfo.
The next step for the Mumbaikar
Though there were no vacancies in the Test or limited overs international teams in December 2009, the knocking on the doors of selection really began to intensify with an unbeaten 265 against Hyderabad. After New Zealand, it was his turn to shine in England, scoring a free flowing 118 against Yorkshire at Leeds in June 2010. The murmurs were now clamours.
He could not go unnoticed anymore and was the only uncapped player in the long list for the 2011 World Cup, nearly three years after he first featured in the probable list. Though he failed to make the final cut, his wait was almost over as he was in line for a debut later that year.
Sehwag’s injury during the tour to England in 2011 meant the day had finally arrived. It must be noted though that Rahane, who was making his T20 debut, had a staggering first class average of 67.72 and a List A average of just 38.61.
He took to the challenge in style, scoring 61 off a mere 39 balls in a match remembered for Dravid’s hat-trick of sixes. But Rahane knew fully well that a Test call up was virtually impossible with the middle order packed like a top secret document.
He carried forward his form to the ODI setup as well, scoring 40, 54 and 38 in the 1st, 2nd and 4th ODIs in England. In the reverse series back in India, he cracked a well compiled 91, but it was not enough to keep his place in the team with the return of Sehwag, and the absence of MS Dhoni meant Parthiv would be the other opener.
He did get a chance in the last ODI against West Indies, but a golden duck meant he had to wait nine months to don the Indian cap again.
The Rahul Dravid effect
The Lord certainly works in mysterious ways. Had Rahane not been dropped then, maybe, just maybe he would not have been the player he is today. That’s because the time off led to him rediscovering his own game. Demoralizing though it was, this proved to be the break he needed.
In 2012, the little boy was now a man. And who better to bring about the change than that man in the picture. By Rahane’s own admission, Rahul Dravid has been his role model, his mentor and the source he looks up to. While many Indian caps were won on the basis of IPL performances, Rahane won something else – timeless experience and words worth their weight in gold. Spending time with the Wall meant limited overs games were not his downfall anymore and his technique was now flawless.
He proved that within 10 days of the start of the 2012 season of the IPL, registering scores of 98 and 103*. He now had a billion eyes fixed on him and his legendary opening partner, and deliver they did, coming out as one of the best opening pairs of the tournament.
However, frustratingly enough, even these performances did not provide him the permanent place he thoroughly deserved.
The time on bench, and finally, the breakthrough
In this period, Rahane became the perennial 12th man for India, getting chosen on all tours and home games but hardly featuring in the playing XI. His domestic form, however, never waned and he continued to plunder runs in multiples of hundred. The bench warming was testing the patience of Rahane, and another failure against Sri Lanka meant he played only 1 ODI and 4 T20Is in 2012.
But come 2013, the winds of change were to blow, as destined by the gods (quite literally).
Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement meant that there was a permanent spot in Tests up for grabs, and Rahane has simply not looked back since. When the country was gushing about Pujara and Kohli against South Africa, Rahane was silently going about his work, scoring 51* and 96 in the second Test at Kingsmead, Durban. When the country was talking about how Kohli and Pujara did not play well enough in New Zealand, Rahane was busy scoring 118 against the hosts.
Such performances are extremely hard to ignore, and the full extent of his impact came to light in the recently concluded Test series against England. Rahane and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar were the only players who did their reputation no harm, the former smashing a century and two fifties. With that century at Lord’s, the Mecca of Cricket, life had come full circle for Rahane, as he was now scoring international tons in those countries he did as a member of the A-team.
Boasting a rock solid technique, it was obvious that Rahane’s Test form was going to rub off on his limited overs form sooner or later. That happened sooner than expected though, with a majestic 106 at Birmingham in the 3rd ODI against England.
But while it’s a joy to watch Rahane’s impeccable technique, during the last few months he’s shown a frustrating habit of throwing away his wicket in the most un-Rahanesque fashion after getting set at the crease.
Still, Rahane must be a relieved man. In a country obsessed with three-figure scores, he knows a point has been proven, a point that would get the monkey off his back for good. A single failure no longer means a year long wait. It is a well known fact that it is easier to perform when the constant fear of being dropped does not flood your thought process. And Rahane has thoroughly deserved that peace of mind.
At 26, the stylish right hander still has a lot to give, and nothing short of a legendary career should please him now.