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What has happened to Ajinkya Rahane, India's Test mainstay?

Once India's middle order pillar in Tests, Rahane's form in the home season has caused concerns.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 28:  Ajinkya Rahane  of India of India plays a pull shot during day three of the Third Test match between Australia and India at Melbourne Cricket Ground on December 28, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)
Rahane's form has taken a hit in the home Tests this season

Incident 1

December 22, 2013 - Johannesburg - India vs South Africa 1st Test

South Africa are chasing a record 458 for victory and are on the cusp of achieving a miraculous victory courtesy a stunning partnership between AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. The former departed soon after his hundred and JP Duminy followed him quickly. All of South Africa's hopes rested on Faf du Plessis. 

Over 132.5 - Zaheer Khan to Faf du Plessis

The set batsman plays a crunching drive to mid-off and sets off for a single. But Ajinkya Rahane swoops in, picks up the ball and throws down the stumps all in one motion to catch a diving Du Plessis short. 

We all know what happened thereafter and the game ending in a tame draw with Philander and Steyn opting to save their wickets in the final moments on Day 5.

Incident 2

November 9, 2016 - Rajkot - India vs England 1st Test

Over 0.3 - Mohammad Shami to Alastair Cook

The England captain plays a loose shot outside his off-stump and the edge flies to Ajinkya Rahane at fourth slip. The usually brilliant Rahane drops a regulation catch at the slips. Thankfully, Jadeja ensured Cook was dismissed in his 20s and the drop did not prove to be really costly.

Incident 3

March 4, 2017 - Bengaluru - India vs Australia 

Over 6.1 - Ishant Sharma to David Warner 

The ball catches the edge of Warner's bat and flies low to gully where Ajinkya Rahane is stationed. The middle order batsman dives full length but the ball slips out of his usually safe pair of hands. 

So what is the difference between Incidents 2 & 3 and Incident 1? There is no doubting Ajinkya Rahane, the fielder. He is athletic, swift on his feet, can throw down a stump from the boundary and catch as well as AB de Villiers. But of late the usually brilliant fielder has been dropping regulation catches. The safest pair of hands in the Indian side is suddenly not so safe anymore.

In an interview with Cricbuzz in 2015, India's then fielding coach, R.Sridhar, had stated, "Even God could come, stand at the slips and drop a catch, but not Rahane." 

Such was India's confidence in this man from Mumbai. He was their answer to the likes of Jonty Rhodes, Faf du Plessis, David Warner and Brendon McCullum. A brilliant, thinking, dynamic fielder. What has come over Rahane then?

Jonty Rhodes is arguably the greatest fielder world cricket has ever seen. In 2014, during the IPL campaign when he was the fielding coach of Mumbai Indians, he was quoated as saying by The Indian Express, "Like it does in batting and bowling, confidence plays a big part in fielding. For instance, Yuvraj Singh is one of India’s greatest fielders but during the recent World Twenty20, he struggled to take his catches. That’s because he was out of form with the bat and hence low on confidence.”

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 18:  Ajinkya Rahane of India drops a catch as Shaun Marsh of Australia plays a stroke high in the air during day two of the 2nd Test match between Australia and India at The Gabba on December 18, 2014 in Brisbane, Australia.  (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
One of India's best fielders, Rahane's confidence has undermined his fielding

"Confidence plays a big part in fielding"

Ajinkya Rahane has had his bleakest season in International Cricket thus far. Interestingly, India have played all of their games at home during this time. Home seasons usually mean harvest time for Indian batsmen. The likes of Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Lokesh Rahul and even Wriddhiman Saha have cashed in on the featherbeds in India.

But Rahane has struggled. In the past three series, including the two Tests against Australia, Rahane has just two half-centuries, one of which came against Bangladesh. 

His averages in the series against England and Australia thus far read 12.60 and 25.00. Curiously, Rahane was outstanding in the two series prior to the England one. He was the only Indian to notch up a hundred in the series against the Proteas at home, where the pitches were heavily criticised for not aiding batsmen one bit. In fact, he made two hundreds in the series and averaged 53.20.

Rahane in the last four Test series

SeriesMatchesRunsAverage
New Zealand in India334769.40
England in India36312.60
Bangladesh in India111055.00
Australia in India210025.00

Rahane also played well in the next series, against the Black Caps, where he notched up a spectacular 188 in Indore. He hit another half-century and averaged 60+ in that series. 

Also read: Tracking Umesh Yadav’s evolution into a reliable fast bowler

A slide in form

But England worked him over. From Ball 3 of the series, when he dropped skipper  Alastair Cook, things haven't gone well for Rahane. In three Tests and five innings, he made just 63 runs. 

The confidence seemed to have improved after a half-century in the Bangladesh series. But Nathan Lyon, the bowler who has dismissed him the most in his Test career, and Steven O'Keefe worked him over. It is rare for an Indian batsman to struggle against spinners at home. But Rahane's case isn't all that curious if you take a closer look.

Rahane has been one of India's most prolific batsmen outside India in the past few years. His averages in countries like Australia, South Africa and New Zealand are above 50 and make for good viewing. But his average in India drops to 38.86. Even in Sri Lanka, where the pitches are similar to India, his average is a shade under 30. 

Rahane - record in each country

CountryMatchesRunsAverageHighest Score100s
Australia439957.001471
Bangladesh19898.00980
England529933.221031
India1489438.861883
New Zealand216254.001181
South Africa220969.66960
Sri Lanka317829.661261
West Indies4243121.50108*1

The blues against spinners 

A look at his Test career dismissal summary is even more interesting. Rahane has been dismissed 29 times by spinners as opposed to 25 by fast bowlers. Nathan Lyon has had the better of him five times in seven Tests whereas Moeen Ali has had him three times. Sri Lankan off-spinner Tharindu Kaushal has dismissed him twice in three Tests. 

All of those bowlers are off-spinners, which may suggest that he has a weakness against that style. But before the Pune Test, he fell to left-arm spinners four successive times – twice to Steven O'Keefe in Pune and one time each to Taijul Islam and Shakib-al-Hasan in the Hyderabad Test against Bangladesh.

Rahane against different types of bowlers

Type of bowlerDismissalsAverage
Right-arm pace2133.33
Right-arm spin2036.05
Left-arm pace467.00
Left-arm spin938.11

It is strange to see an Indian batsman who is technically pretty good, struggle against spinners at home. His confidence has clearly taken a beating as is evident in the manner he stepped out to Nathan Lyon in Bengaluru and was stumped easily.

Rahane looked in good touch in the second innings at Bengaluru

A hope-filled half-century

Rahane's 52 in the second innings of the second Test at Bengaluru, however, offers hope. He was watchful against the spinners and played Starc and a pumped up Hazlewood very well. Importantly, Rahane was ready to bide his time at the crease and when he needed a mentor, Cheteshwar Pujara offered all the assistance from the other end.

Kumble's strong words favouring the middle order batsman's selection over Karun Nair before the Bengaluru Test would have been in Rahane's mind as he walked out in the second innings.

"I think there's no question of looking at dropping Rahane," Kumble had said. "He's scored really well, he's been extremely successful over the last couple of years. There's absolutely no question about that." 

Also read: Whenever Warner walks in to bat, Ashwin is happy, says Cheteshwar Pujara

In fact, Pujara's presence was an even bigger factor in Rahane's redemption knock. Pujara, the man touted as Rahul Dravid's successor, helped Rahane settle himself at the crease and play his natural game. The drives and flicks started flowing once he was set and he never let Lyon settle into his rhythm.

It must be remembered that Rahane's golden run in the IPL and thereafter in the Indian team came on the back of Rahul Dravid's mentorship at Rajasthan Royals. Maybe, Pujara's calm and composed nature at the non-striker's end, akin to Dravid's, was all Rahane needed to get back into his groove.

Rahane scored just 1 run in the 'V' down the ground at Bengaluru

That said, the 52 at Bengaluru is not a complete knock. Ideally, in India in Tests, an in-form batsman scores a few runs down the ground. Rahane's waggon wheel of the second innings knock shows that he scored just one run down the ground. 

His scoring areas were much better in the 188 at Indore

As opposed to this, the wagonwheel of his century in Indore against the Kiwis reveals that 47 of his runs came down the ground, a distinct sign of a confident batsman in India.

It might have been a deliberate attempt in Bengaluru to not play the spinner on the up in order to avoid an outside edge. If that is the case, it is a positive sign as a corrective step is already under way.

All said and done, however, the Rahane redemption is not complete yet. The Indian fans will be hoping that he comes good again when the Ranchi Test gets underway on 16th.

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