India’s World Cup squad announcement brings with it a certain amount of relief for a fair few in the cricket community — the players themselves, of course, who got selected; selectors, who don’t have to answer questions for a while now; fans and pundits, who can rest from making their predictions. But, inevitably, those cricketers on the fringes as well who might have been harbouring hopes of a left-field selection call-up, wondering if there would be a last-minute surprise.

For many fans, Ajinkya Rahane and R Ashwin — two constants in MS Dhoni’s line-ups in the 2015 edition — are still viable options for India’s One-Day International set-up. But, in all reality, both were nowhere close to making the cut for the 15-member squad announced for the 2019 World Cup.

Out of India’s white-ball plans, when the two went head-to-head as skippers in the Indian Premier League on Tuesday, there was one clear winner.

While Kings XI Punjab captain Ashwin has used IPL as a platform to remind fans and pundits that he is a fierce competitor in the limited-overs formats, Rajasthan Royals’ Rahane only seemed to have regressed even further.

Ashwin, leading from the front

It is quite an incredible statistic that his all-round performance against Royals in Mohali on Tuesday was only the second time that Ashwin has won the player-of-the-match award in IPL. He faced just four balls, batting at No 7, but struck two sixes and a four to finish with a strike rate of 425. A 4-ball 17 does not seem extraordinary on paper but that cameo was the difference between a par score and a match-winning one — it took KXIP to 182/7, the highest score in Mohali so far this season.

With the ball in hand, Ashwin has been a much improved performer in 2019. After nine matches this season, he has one wicket more than he did in the entirety of 2018. He has bowled with verve, increased his already-vast repertoire of deliveries, picked up wickets at crucial junctures even if the opposition has taken the attack to him, and celebrated all his wickets with a passion that is reflective of his desire to do well in the only platform he has currently to show he is not a washed up white-ball exponent.

Against Royals, all of the above features on display, as he (and namesake M Ashwin) bowled four terrific overs of spin to pull the match back when the visitors were cruising towards the target. Mohali is a tough venue to defend targets, but the two spinners combined for figures of 3/48 in their eight overs to throw a spanner in the works of Rajasthan Royals. Skipper Ashwin got his carrom balls right to dismiss a well-set Rahul Tripathi and the dangerous Sanju Samson, while also restricting the run-scoring. It was a man-of-the-match award well-earned for the Punjab captain.

Rahane’s struggles

At the other side, Rahane demoted himself to No 4 in the batting order to promote Tripathi back as an opener. That Tripathi played an innings not very dissimilar to what we expect from Rahane (50 off 44 balls) did not help Royals’ case. Rahane, then, was left playing shots well out of his comfort zone — trying to scoop and sweep fast bowlers is not his forte, clearly — as the required run-rate kept creeping up for Royals.

On paper, Rahane’s strike rate of 133-plus this season is the best in his IPL career. He has been Royals’ third best batsman after Jos Buttler and Samson. He has looked to be aggressive in the powerplay. But, as the game continues to evolve, Rahane’s batting has not.

And his post-match interviews, much like his batting, seems to be a broken record — he could not find a reason why his side lost the match against KXIP, when his inability to strike big was central to it. He, yet again, resorted to platitudes in describing a defeat that has become all too familiar for the Rajasthan franchise. As a leader and as a batsman, Rahane seems to be in a rut that he can’t escape from.

Contrasting fortunes

By all means, Royals’ season has been something of a damp squib so far. Apart from Jos Buttler’s fireworks at the top of the order and Sanju Samson’s century (in a losing cause), there have not been any batting performances that stand out. Jofra Archer and Shreyas Gopal have impressed with the ball, but match-winning performances have been few.

Their struggles are encompassed by Rahane’s personal battles with the bat, still struggling to find a place in the shortest format. His innings in Mohali was particularly tough to watch: you can admire him, at some level, for trying anything and everything to make it work, but its just not happening for him.

On the other hand, KXIP’s campaign has been something of a roller-coaster. They boast of two of the best batsmen this season in their line-up and yet have lost matches because of their batting. They boast of two of the best Indian bowlers too, but have lost matches due to the lineup not clicking as a unit.

Their fielding has swung from extravagant to ordinary. But, whatever may be the case, KXIP have made themselves an enjoyable side to follow in this IPL, and that’s in no small part due to their captain R Ashwin.

Even when (or especially when) the odds are against him, he rarely goes away without a fight. This season has showcased that side of his game as KXIP, slowly but surely, have made themselves a team worth supporting — the crowds in Mohali in IPL 2019 are proof of that.

“I have always lived and died by the sword and despite people calling me out for trying too many things, I kept on going,” he said after the win against RR.

Those words reflect not just his performances in the IPL this year but sum Ashwin up as a cricketer quite perfectly.