Ajinkya Rahane: a career waiting to be seized

Ajinkya Rahane punches off the back foot
September 01, 2021

It's that time again. Seventeen innings after his last Test hundred, an average of 21 and just two fifties in that run; five innings on this tour and an average of 19 and scores of 18 and 10 in a heavy defeat. Yep, it's time to talk about Ajinkya Rahane again.

At one level, it's always time to talk about Rahane. He's always either not being quite elite enough (Exhibit A: he averages 40 after 77 Tests) or he's being vital in only the toughest circumstances (Exhibit B: averages more away than at home, and 42 in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), or that he's the actual captain-genius in the India side (Exhibit C: Four wins and one draw in five Tests and he'll always have Australia 2020-21).

But there's always other people to talk about in that batting line-up, and in such high-pitched tones that it drowns out talk about Rahane. There's never, for example, the slavish dissection of his dismissals as there is of Virat Kohli; nobody's got the protractor out for Rahane measuring the approximately 1.2 degrees difference in how the back foot was set in 2018 and how it's set in 2021.

There's no nerdy and angsty rabbit-holes to go down and parse the intent in that 1 off 56 balls, or 20 off 140 as there is with Cheteshwar Pujara. He's not starting a culture war like Rishabh Pant by reverse-sweeping James Anderson with the new ball. And Rohit Sharma is somehow the best Test opener in the world at the moment and also isn't the best Test opener in the world until the moment he gets that first away hundred. What air is left is Rahane's.

It was time to talk about him ahead of the last Test as well, when he was even asked whether he was frustrated that he was always being talked about. Now, bear in mind the question came after an Exhibit B of an innings at Lord's: rescue job, difficult conditions, tough opponents.

His 61, and the 100-run partnership with Pujara, was what football calls the pre-assist, the assist for the assist for the goal, without which the goal wouldn't be. Rahane and Pujara putting on that stand made it possible for the partnership between Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, which made it possible for the bowlers to pull off the win. The pre-assist is an apt Rahane leitmotif.

Rahane answered that he was happy people were talking about him because it meant he was important: "I have always felt people talk about important people so I am not concerned about that."

There's all kinds of ways to unwrap that response, none more tempting than a quiet little fist-pump coming from slightly beyond the very core of the team. It's the kind of self-validating, smouldering answer that makes most sense if we consider Sunil Gavaskar's pre-series interpretation that a whispering campaign has begun against Rahane (and Pujara) and that Rahane needs to be treated as an asset, not a threat (to and by whom Gavaskar doesn't make clear).

The kind of response to remind one and all that Rahane's last great trick was to lead one of the most depleted India sides in modern history to one of her greatest triumphs. A triumph, it might be pointed out, that began with a Rahane century which, it might be further pointed out, is the only Test hundred any of the trio of Rahane, Pujara and Kohli have scored in nearly two years.


Or it could just be a response to what has been a very Rahane summer. The Lord's innings will go down as another of those Rahane innings, alongside the 103 at the same ground seven years ago, the twin hundreds in Delhi (in an entire series where nobody else got even one hundred), the second-innings 48 at Johannesburg, having been dropped for the first two Tests of the series and the second-innings 52 in Bengaluru, part of a match-winning 118-run partnership with Pujara.

Around that 61, though, there has also been plenty of Rahane batting, Rahane scoring some runs and Rahane getting out without enough runs having been scored. In four out of seven innings in England this summer, he's batted for longer than an hour and only twice has he failed to reach double-figures. But he's averaging 19.

There's also not been a pattern of dismissal that indicates a flaw that bowlers can chew away on, a targeting of the stumps, or hanging at that fourth stump. In the World Test Championship final, having played arguably the innings of the game, he was out caught at square leg, playing something between a pull and a short-arm jab. In the second innings he flicked down the leg-side to the wicketkeeper.

At Trent Bridge he was run out. At Lord's he first poked at an Anderson outswinger and then prodded at Moeen Ali. Twice at Headingley he was sucked in to playing at deliveries coming in with the angle and either straightening or leaving him - standard dismissals in English conditions. His entire career really, there's not been one cast-iron way to get Rahane out other than that he can be gotten out in a number of ways.

And so here we are, his career at this strange moment where there's no immediate serious threat to his place and yet it's still not outlandish to be properly scrutinising those returns. Maybe not with as much sound and fury as the others, but it's sobering nonetheless to remember that 30 Tests into his career Rahane had pushed his average to beyond 50, and even 40 Tests in - that is after more than half of his career to date - he was averaging 48.

Much like this series in fact, this moment in Rahane's career also feels poised, still waiting to be seized. Failure will not necessarily end or lessen any a rich, 80-Test career. Success will be validation of that importance he talked about. Whichever way it goes this much is certain is that we'll be talking about him again soon.

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