What hits you first? The doubt or the realisation? And if it’s the realisation, do you still try and fight it? And if you do, does it just go away? Do the doubts remain? Or do they crawl their way back like the cockroaches from the Evil Dead?
And what if you continue to defy the realisation in spite of all the world’s doubts, does that make them just go away?
What if Mahendra Singh Dhoni was right about Ajinkya Rahane all along. What if he is really not meant to play limited overs cricket for India? So what if he is the designated captain for the customary Zimbabwe trip when Dhoni and Kohli are rested, is he a definite starter in the playing XI?
It is the same Ajinkya Rahane who dared to score faster than any of his mates in Test matches but what happens when he plays One-Day Internationals or Twenty20 Internationals? Are the wickets too flat or too slow? Or as Dhoni pointed out, can Rahane not quite cut it in home conditions?
The long rope and its pitfalls
Rahane has already played 72 ODIs (opening in 42), his batting average is a tad less than 33, his strike rate a shade less than 80. He made his ODI debut over five years ago. Since then, he has been in and out, and out and in of the team. Musical chairs are not an ideal warmup for any cricketer. It is a little like Rohit Sharma and Test cricket. Also, it is not too dissimilar to Sharma in his first 100 or so ODIs which were a mini horror run in their own right. Even more so on social media than in the middle. Rohit begat more Maggi two-minute jokes than Suresh Raina begat short-ball jokes.
In his first 100 ODIs, Sharma had two centuries, an average of 31.79 and a strike rate of 75.79, both less than Rahane’s as of now, though he too has two ODI centuries. Rahane unlike Sharma is very much a Test match staple for India. He is also the vice-captain and the go-to guy in the slips.
In his next 53 ODIs, Sharma notched up eight more hundreds, two of which were monster doubles, shot his average to above 40, to 41.37, and his strike rate well beyond 80, to 84.43. As Rahane is today, Sharma was the chosen one before he turned his one-day game around.
Being the chosen one has its perks, just as being Ambati Rayudu does not.
You are given a much, much longer rope. To first, string yourself up, repeatedly, and then, your demons, and once you have rid yourself of all that baggage, you can get on with it, much like Sharma has lately.
But the recent ODI series against New Zealand had Rahane knotting himself up again. In three out of five games, his strike rate was in the 50s. His only half century came in a defeat. He had his share of soft dismissals and loose shots. Those unfriendly slow tracks had come calling again.
And worryingly, Rahane’s ODI form may well have been preying on his mind. Three balls into the first Test against England in Rajkot, he dropped a sitter off Alastair Cook in the slips. At the crease, the loose shots and low scores continued: 13, 1, 23, 26.
To play or not play in all the formats?
Elsewhere, Cheteshwar Pujara was adding Test tons like you toss golgappas down. Had he finally shrugged off those injury-ridden Indian Premier League seasons? Had he finally come to terms with the format that works for him? A few years back, on the back of a dream Test run, Pujara was vocal about playing all formats. Opening the batting for Kings XI Punjab, he would be at a run-a-ball 30 after 20 overs, while in the middle-order, Glenn Maxwell would be tearing the house down in the 90s. After a short stint in the Gulf leg of the league, Pujara did not play the rest of the tournament.
Between rehab, county seasons and a return to Test cricket, Pujara’s game appeared muddled – its inners tossed around with some very odd T20 trials. The trials continued in his brief ODI stint, in Zimbabwe – where else? – followed by Bangladesh. Five matches, two ducks, a highest of 27, an ODI average of 10, is that the end of a dodgy international limited-overs career? List A and Test averages of in excess of 50, with 10 centuries a piece mean little.
Pujara, like Murali Vijay, has served his time in ODIs and T20s, and is much the wiser with a far better know-how of his game. Neither he nor Vijay are amongst the chosen ones. They are not the ones who wore their mother’s name in the Star Sports ad – Rahane did.
Across more than five years, Vijay has played 17 ODIs. An average of 21.18, a strike rate of 66.99. His last comeback, against Zimbabwe (yes, where else?) – in a team led by Rahane, that included Ambati Rayudu, Manoj Tiwary, Robin Uthappa and Harbhajan Singh.
Murali Vijay (also called “Monk”) though appears to have made his peace with the formats, leaving those that do not concern him, just like the new ball outside off. Every now and then, there’s a hint of that Chennai Super Kings madness when he comes down the wicket and hits a spinner for six. The next ball though, more often than not, he will just dab into the ground. And you realise, there is not much yellow left in him. And just as well. Vijay’s calling is in whites, to leave that new ball, so others after him can tear it apart.
Today, both Vijay and Pujara are at a better place, almost formatted to Test cricket. As for Rahane and Rohit, there are sterner tests ahead. One they will continue taking. Being the chosen ones comes with a price.
Ask Yuvraj Singh. His next comeback is always just around the corner.