Will Ajinkya Rahane's inclusion in the World Cup squad resolve Team India's quandary?
The ICC Cricket World Cup is nearly upon us. The Indians are just 5 matches away from their first World Cup match, against South Africa. The format of the forthcoming World Cup is a demanding one since it requires every team to play every other team once in the round-robin stage before the top 4 qualify for the semi-finals.
This format cuts both ways. On the one hand, it gives teams plenty of matches to qualify while on the other hand, it demands consistent form and performances over a prolonged period of time. One slip up against a weaker team at the most inopportune time could be the end of the campaign for any team.
The teams might find it difficult to peak at the right time. The last time a similar format was adopted in the World Cup was in 1992 when Pakistan went all the way even after losing a few matches in the preliminary stages of the tournament.
In a way, this format reduces the gap between the so-called favourites and dark horses. Nonetheless, this format, though a ruthless one, is considered to be the best as the most deserving teams are the ones that qualify for the semi-finals. In fact, qualifying for the semi-finals in itself would be a great accomplishment for all participating teams.
Coming to the team compositions, for India, the first 12 players almost select themselves. They are: Rohit Sharma (VC), Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli (C), Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav, M.S. Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami.
The selectors will have to settle on a second wicket-keeper which will be a direct shoot-out between Dinesh Karthik and Rishabh Pant. A backup seamer will have to be narrowed down on as well. After the prolonged failure of players like Khaleel Ahmed and Umesh Yadav, Vijay Shankar is in with a chance to occupy this spot and play the role of the second all-rounder in the team. That would rule out Ravindra Jadeja as the spin-bowling all-rounder and the third spinner in the team.
That leaves the last spot, that of the reserve middle-order batsman/reserve opener to be taken care of. In this context, the chairman of selectors M.S.K Prasad revealed that Ajinkya Rahane is in contention for a place in the World Cup squad and so are Rishabh Pant and Vijay Shankar.
In this article, let us analyse whether the selection of Rahane for the Word Cup will resolve Team India’s quandary.
Factors favouring Ajinkya Rahane
Rahane is a technically sound batsman and his superior technique could come in handy in English conditions. He has the ability to build an innings even in unfavourable batting conditions. With his solid technique, Rahane could arrest a slide in case there is a top-order collapse.
Play the dual role of a reserve middle-order batsman and a reserve opener
Rahane could be used both as a middle-order batsman as well as an opener if required. As an opener, Rahane has scored 1937 runs in 54 innings @ 36.55. At No 4, he has scored 843 runs in 25 innings at nearly the same average. Rahane is equally adept at opening the innings as well as batting in the middle-order.
The one factor that's always in favour of Rahane is that he is a much better fielder than even some of the youngsters in the team. In the current Indian team, only Jadeja and Kohli are better than him on the field. Rahane is an alert fielder in the slips and a safe fielder in the outfield. With the likely absence of Jadeja in the playing XI, Rahane along with Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan should shore up the Indian fielding in the World Cup.
Record in England
In England, Rahane has scored 350 runs in 9 innings @ 38.89 with a century and a fifty. His average of 38.89 in England is much better than his overall average of 35.26. Ironically, in India, Rahane has averaged only 34 in 34 innings.
The poor recent form of K.L. Rahul
Rahane would not have come into the picture had K.L. Rahul let his bat do the talking. Rahul’s continuous run of poor scores and lack of opportunities have helped Rahane's cause. Rahul has played in only 13 ODIs over the last 3 years. In contrast to the out-of-form K.L. Rahul, the more experienced Rahane could be a better option for Team India.
Lack of other better options
The other contenders like Shubman Gill, Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal are all relatively inexperienced to thrust into a mega event like the World Cup. It is too late for Team India to fall back on the experience of a Suresh Raina or a Yuvraj Singh. Besides, all these players are either regular openers or middle-order batsmen. Apart from K.L. Rahul, only Rahane can fit in both as an opener and a middle-order batsman.
Factors against Ajinkya Rahane
Lack of match practice
Rahane last played an ODI one year ago, in February 2018. He has never truly been a part of Team India’s white ball scheme of things. Now, he might, at the most, get 5 matches to get into the groove before the World Cup. Of course, his IPL stint should help him get a feel of the environment in white ball cricket, but that might not be enough.
Inability to rotate the strike in the middle overs
The general complaint about Ajinkya Rahane is his inability to rotate strike during the middle overs. This has a telling effect on his strike rate. He has struggled against quality spinners at home to take singles and rotate the strike. But he might thrive in English conditions where the role of the spinners is limited.
Rahane is not a swift runner between the wickets either.
Selectors thinking out-of-box
As of now, the selectors are likely to select either K.L. Rahul or Ajinkya Rahane as the reserve batsman. However, they might decide to do away with that chain of thought by either selecting Vijay Shankar or Ravindra Jadeja as the second all-rounder in the team in lieu of a specialist batsman which would endanger Rahane’s chances.
With the pressure mounting on the selectors to choose the hottest sensation, Rishabh Pant, they might even be tempted to go in with both Pant and Karthik in the squad. Both have been in the thick of the action of late and are in decent form. With only 4 players manning the boundary in the second powerplay overs between 11 and 40, a rampaging Pant could be an exciting option over a steady Rahane. But selecting 3 keepers in the squad would compromise the fielding standards and reduce the bowling options.
As the deadline for announcing the World Cup squad expires in mid-April ’19, the form of the fringe players in the preliminary matches of the 12th edition of IPL could very well determine the last two places in the Indian squad.
To sum up, do the advantages of selecting Rahane in the World Cup squad outweigh the disadvantages? The answer would be in the affirmative, though just about. Rahane, if selected, could be a welcome addition to the Indian World Cup squad.