Grey. It was the sky’s colour when India got down to practice on Thursday at Supersport Park. It was an intense session, lasting nearly four hours as the team decided to iron out deficiencies from the first Test defeat. The usual suspects were in the nets, adorning batting gear or Kookaburra balls in hand.
Yet, there was someone missing. You had to crane the neck 180-degrees to find Ajinkya Rahane. There he stood, alone, at some distance from his teammates, near the small sight screens at the practice nets, arms folded, a straight gaze masked by his dark Oakley shades.
If this were Game of Thrones season one, Rahane would be Jon Snow, brooding outside on a cold summer’s night, while all the Stark children gathered at the feasting table. Grey would be his colour, indeed.
The stage was Durban. It was Rahane’s big moment after a horrendous Test debut on home soil nine months prior. The pitch at Kingsmead wasn’t too different, yet India were in all kinds of trouble. With an easy-paced 96, Rahane laid down a marker for the months to come.
The stage was Wellington. It was time to step up. On a green-top that truly turned out to be flat, India needed to drive home their advantage. Rahane arrived on the scene, this time ready to go that extra mile. It has always been about learning, and he had absorbed how to farm the tailenders whilst missing out on a hundred in South Africa. He didn’t miss it this time around, raising his bat aloft to the stands as the gathered Indian fandom celebrated in abounding joy of his maiden Test hundred.
The stage was Lord’s. This was a proper green-top, unlike Basin Reserve. This was also the most hallowed cricketing turf in the world. ‘Score a hundred here and get your name up on that long-room wall’, they said.
“I lost count how many times I was told this before that Test began,” Rahane said.
He did it, rescuing India from 145/7 with one of the most brilliant centuries by an Indian batsman on foreign soil, setting up a win at Lord’s after 28 years.
“I don’t think Rahane has ever batted on a pitch like this. You know who the real man-of-the-match is? It’s him,” Graeme Swann had said.
The stage was Melbourne. Virat Kohli was on song, giving it back to Mitchell Johnson (and company) as good as he was getting. All he needed was a partner-in-crime. Rahane duly arrived at the crease. For once, he shed the ‘good boy’ routine on taking guard. This wasn’t about loitering around or just hanging in there. This was about bragging rights. Short ball, bang. Short ball again, cross-batted swipe. Short ball yet again, an over-head tennis forehand slam.
If the previous generation wrote sonnets about Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin’s mighty partnership at Cape Town in 1997, the next generation will one day sing odes to Kohli-Rahane at the MCG in 2014. That was a good year for Rahane. 13 matches. 1069 runs. Average 48.59. 3 centuries. 6 half-centuries. India’s best Test batsman on foreign soil, period. Superman doesn’t wear white, does he?
Over the course of 2013-14, Rahane had established himself as the primary no.5 in India’s Test line-up. Much of it had to do with India’s move towards a five-bowler attack, as also the fact that Rohit Sharma didn’t do enough in the longer format. There were no long ropes here. Score runs and you get the reward, as Rahane did. There were runs in Sri Lanka (2015), at home (twin centuries against South Africa) later, and then again in West Indies (2016).
Never a Test series went by, wherein Rahane didn’t score a hundred (until late 2017 when he was injured mid-contest against England). If (and that’s a prickly if) there was an argument against him, it was in not retaining his form through a Test series, grinding the opposition under a mountain of 400/500-plus runs. Like Kohli did in Australia (2014-15), or like Cheteshwar Pujara does in umpteen home series.
Unlike Rahane though, neither Kohli nor Pujara have an impressive overseas record. It is a telling statement, one that isn’t often repeated and gets lost in translation of captaincy bravado. So, how do you drop a batsman like that? Poor form? Sure, Rahane isn’t Kohli, but Rahane isn’t Pujara either, wherein you need to talk about the ‘lack of intent’ in scoring runs. He certainly isn’t Rohit.
In the past, Rahane has been made to shuffle up and down to accommodate Rohit in the Test line-up. It happened in 2015, when the no.3 experiment began. Three Tests later, Rohit was moved to a ‘more comfortable’ no.5 with Rahane shunted up. He responded with a century in the second innings at the P Sara Oval.
A year later, on a green-top at St. Lucia, the entire batting line-up was shifted just to fit Rohit in. It is amply clear that the team management is desperate to include Rohit in its Test plans. And why not, for he can really dominate bowling attacks.
But this is an eternal gap between promise and delivery that needs to be bridged; otherwise it is nothing but an exercise in futility.
And it has come at what cost? Additionally, this constant upheaval in batting order isn’t restricted to the longer formats. For years, Rahane was shifted up and down the ODI batting line-up because there was a need for reliable middle-order batsmen.
Now, of late, he has been the designated third opener. Suddenly, the Men in Blue – renowned for their flexibility in batting roles – were inflexible, to put it mildly. In Kohli’s absence during the Sri Lanka ODIs, by right Rahane should have been batting at no.3, gaining valuable batting time ahead of this overseas tour.
Instead, that spot went to Shreyas Iyer, in the garb of experimentation. Rahane, for his part, is not one to complain.
“My mindset is always to accept what the team management tells me to do, and where they want me to bat. I have never challenged that. My job is to win matches for the country, not think about where I have been asked to bat,” he told this writer, just before departing for South Africa.
The call to exclude Rahane out of the Cape Town Test was made some 36 hours before the first ball was bowled. A source says that he was informed of this decision rather late.
It is understandable why he would feel disheartened by it, in light of Pravin Amre’s (his personal batting coach) loud criticism of the team management back home.
On Thursday afternoon then, Rahane stood a mute spectator as India’s prospective line-up for the second Test – KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Pujara, Kohli, Rohit, Pandya and Wriddhiman Saha – took guard one by one.
He did take some throw-downs from Sanjay Bangar though, and later faced a stint in the nets against pace, just to be ready in case that unlikely call-up comes on Saturday morning, however late.
The most telling scene of the morning, though, was when Rahane adjusted that tiny sightscreen so that Rohit could take guard against the pacers. Ideally, it should have been the other way round.
Yes, this is about Rohit and Rahane, and who between the two, on merit not just form, deserves a longer rope this time around. The lack of support for Rahane – the Indian Test vice-captain – during the toughest phase in his career is appalling to say the least. But will he be given a chance to prove his detractors wrong or will he once again be reduced to being a silent spectator in the dressing room?