India coach Ravi Shastri, on Thursday, revealed that the team chose to pick Rohit Sharma ahead of Ajinkya Rahane in the first two Tests against South Africa as they felt the former was the in-form batsman heading into the Australia series.

This assessment of form was based on the duo’s performance against Sri Lanka. The former had impressed with a century and two half centuries during the three-Test series, while the latter had a woeful outing.

The decision drew criticism from across the board. After suffering reverses in the first two Tests, the team finally relented and allowed Rahane back into the playing XI for the third Test. As fate would have it Rahane produced an impressive knock on a difficult pitch.

Ahead of the ODI series, the selection woes once again came into prominence. Rahane was once again in focus. Unlike in the Test series, the team management chose to go with Rahane in the first ODI.

He was coming into the ODI series having scored four consecutive half-centuries against Australia, albeit as an opener. Form proved to be the reason for his exclusion from the Test XI, it turned out to be a boon for him in the ODIs.

India were handed a tricky target of 270 to chase by South Africa in the first ODI on a sluggish track at Kingsmead in Durban. Rahane came into bat after both the openers were dismissed. Skipper Virat Kohli was just about finding his feet. Together, the two added a record 189 runs for the third wicket to take the game completely out of South Africa’s grasp.

With the knock, Rahane became the latest candidate to get a formal audition for the role of India’s No 4 batsman, left vacant since Yuvraj Singh lost favour with the selectors. Among the few who have been tested for the role, Rahane’s effort could be cited as the most convincing.

The effort on Thursday gave a good account of his ability to bat well irrespective of his position in the batting order. He complemented Kohli perfectly as they went about breaking down the target. The quick singles, timely boundaries and sixes... all showed that these two batsmen had a natural chemistry. While, the knock wasn’t all flash, it’s strength lay in the fact that the Mumbai batsman did not forgo his natural game.

His understanding of the overseas conditions came to the fore as he was quick to settle down after joining Kohli at the crease. He scored 79 runs in just 86 balls. Not only did he play a perfect supporting role, but was also decidedly aggressive when he felt he needed to be proactive.

Ajinkya Rahane (left) and Virat Kohli stitched together a match-winning stand of 189 runs on Thursday. Photo: Sportzpics/BCCI.
Ajinkya Rahane (left) and Virat Kohli stitched together a match-winning stand of 189 runs on Thursday. Photo: Sportzpics/BCCI.

Floater

It was in South Africa back in 2013 that Ajinkya Rahane was first asked to bat at No 4.

It was the start of a spell that would see the right-hand batsman being shunted all over the batting order. From opening the batting one day to carrying drinks the other.The 29-year-old’s fluctuating position in the batting line-up has since become a topic of a constant debate.

Four years after that first tryst with the No 4 place, Rahane was once again asked to bat in the crucial position in India’s middle-order. This time, the stakes were higher as he played to not only vie for the No 4 place, but also remain relevant in a team which has multiple contenders for each position.

Rahane would know that better than most. He made his debut for India against England in 2011 as an opener. He had shown early promise, but moved down the pecking order as Rohit and Dhawan emerged to be a more potent force at the top of the order in limited-overs cricket.

With Kohli preferring to bat at No 3, going down the order was the only recourse for the Mumbai batsman. Rahane has since been used at No 4, No 5, and even No 6. Only place that’s been left is for him to bat with the tail.

However, with viable options emerging for each position, it’s no longer wise to operate as a floater.

The lack of clarity in his role seems to have not only affected his form, but has clearly left him rattled mentally as well. The dip in form against Sri Lanka at home cost him a place in the Test squad but many observers will be glad to see that better sense eventually prevailed.

And his 79 in the Durban ODI was a reminder that Rahane has all the skills necessary to adapt and deliver in any role given to him in the limited-overs format as well.

By all evidence it’s becoming increasingly clear that at the heart of Rahane’s constant struggle is a lack of clarity on his role. Just take into account, how the team management’s views on Rahane have changed in just the last 3-4 months:

October 2017:

“He’s (Rahane) definitely grabbed his opportunities as the third opener. We don’t want to confuse him too much by making him play in the middle order because you need to find your game in ODI cricket. He is in a happy space.”
– Kohli ahead of the ODI series against New Zealand.

December 2017:

“I think we made it clear in Sri Lanka that he is an opening batsman and we don’t want to keep changing his batting slot. It plays on anyone’s mind not just his, if one’s batting order is kept on changing. We have identified him as an opening batsman and that’s the only reason he had to sit out.”
– Rohit Sharma after Rahane was dropped for the first ODI against Sri Lanka.

January 31, 2018:

“I had said earlier that Ajinkya will be looked at as a third opener, but that situation can change because he has batted at No. 4 in a World Cup before, These conditions are such that you get to play fast bowling throughout the innings so he becomes a strong candidate for No. 4... we have kept all these options open, we don’t want to be one-dimensional. It depends whose technique is more suited to what spot. Especially in that particular country. All options are open.”
– Kohli said a day before India start the ODI series in South Africa.

February 1, 2018:

“Very, very happy for Jinx. Jinx is a top-class player. He capitalised on a chance at the No 4 slot which we have been looking to fill for a while now.”
– Kohli after the first ODI against SA.

Ajinkya Rahane scored his fifth consecutive half-century on Thursday. Photo: Sportzpics/BCCI.
Ajinkya Rahane scored his fifth consecutive half-century on Thursday. Photo: Sportzpics/BCCI.

Inspiring confidence

Other than Rahane, Dinesh Karthik, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav have been used in the No 4 position. KL Rahul too given a look in, but none have really managed to own the position. As a stop gap, India even tried to promote all-rounder Hardik Pandya up the order during a couple of ODI series at home last year. However, this option might not work overseas.

While Rahane’s knock was impressive, he might have to take things a notch higher and get some big runs to nail down the position. He isn’t a natural big-hitter like Yuvraj but he does provide a stable option. If India does in fact need a few quick runs, the team’s lower-order is more than adept at it.

With the World Cup scheduled to held in England next year, India will want to get their playing XI set as early as possible and the No 4 position is one of the last few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle yet to fall in place.

Fortunately for Rahane, his fine knock has come at the start of a long series. Unless Shastri and the team management have other ideas, he should have ample opportunities to prove his worth. If he doesn’t, he’ll just go back to being third opener again.