The burden of being Ajinkya Rahane

Ajinkya Rahane was again dismissed for a low score
June 06, 2023

The last 18 months may not have been a great time to be Ajinkya Rahane, India batter, but the last 18 months have not been a bad time to be Ajinkya Rahane, former India batter, talking about Ajinkya Rahane, India batter.

For example: "It's all about trying to remind myself that if I can just be Ajinkya Rahane and play like Ajinkya Rahane, I think I'll be fine."

It's a great line, said in the immediate afterglow of his 27-ball 61 for Chennai Super Kings this season, the innings that may have been the most mindblowing from this year's IPL (a year in which there was no shortage of innings that blew the mind). Rahane already had two IPL hundreds to his name but if this is what being Ajinkya Rahane is all about, then, umm, which Ajinkya Rahane have we been privy to all these years?

Another example: "I don't want to prove anything to anyone. I think my competition is with myself. If I stick to that, things will fall into place. I don't want to run after anything… just want to back my game."

It's another great line of self-affirmation and came again in afterglow, this time soon after a double hundred in the Ranji Trophy, having led Mumbai to the Syed Mushtaq Ali title the month previous.

Elsewhere, he's talked plenty about trying to remain in the present, not wanting to look back at all, not wanting to look too far ahead. He likened the present moment, before the start of the Ranji season, to one of starting from zero.

When he landed in the UK a few days ago, an IPL champion looking ahead to the World Test Championship final, he spoke again of the importance of being in the moment, of enjoying it, and not lingering on past regrets.

It's not earth-shattering insight. If you put all these statements together onto one page, instead of as an intermittent chronicling of a season, it might read like a page from a self-help book (or, as they are known these days, an autobiography). But there's always been an endearing sincerity to Rahane's words and actions, not unlike the India head coach just with a slightly less intense burn. That sincerity has always been enhanced somewhat by the fact of Rahane never having been one of the big stars in the universe of Indian batting, always one of the buildings next to the Burj Khalifa, or one of the non-Beyoncé members of Destiny's Child.

And this moment, on the cusp of a return to the Indian Test side ahead of the WTC final, is a wonderful moment for him. His batting has hit upon the elusive truth all batters come back to at some point, the truth that made them good in the first place, that made it feel so simple at the time, shorn from the complications of formats, and from the pressures of the impending doom that is batting. Your innings, your career, your life, all down to one ball, day in, day out.

Plus, a comeback for any athlete is the sweetest vindication. Rarely do they believe it was right to be dropped in the first place, just as the person who thinks they were justifiably laid off doesn't exist. When Rahane spoke about his dropping, for example, he said it wasn't necessarily because issues had crept into his game but that the pitches at home had become so tough for batting. (Which isn't untrue.)

But this can also present a slightly fraught moment to be Ajinkya Rahane because the rope you are given is shorter. In Rahane's case, it's natural to look at his age tick over to 35 one day before the final and think of a return to India colours not only as a neat birthday gift but for a limited period. It's also because these moments can be tarred by the brush of familiarity. They know you. They know what you're good at. They know what you're not so good at.

In such moments, chances always are that a failure will be seen simply as a reminder of past failures, a reopening of old wounds. This is why we ended it in the first place. And success gets downplayed because, obviously, that's what we expected and why we showed faith in you again.

Not to mention that pesky voice in the back of our heads telling us that everything Rahane is saying right now is also a subversion of the very essence of being human. We do dwell on the past. We do forget what we were. We do overthink things.

A second chance then, as much as it is a blessing, can also be a curse.

Not that Rahul Dravid necessarily sees it as that. He can't and neither should he. Having someone of Rahane's quality and experience can only be a good thing. "He brings proven performance in overseas conditions even in England. He's played some terrific innings for us. He brings terrific catching in the slips as well to the group. He just brings his personality to the group as well, which is really important. He's led the team to considerable success. So yeah, it's just great to have someone like him around here."

And Dravid is keen for this to not be seen as a one-off opportunity, or for Rahane to treat it as such. "Sometimes you get dropped from teams and you make a comeback and you can play for as long as you're playing well and as long as you're performing.

"It's not written in stone that you only get one match. He puts in a good performance, really shows what he's got, who knows, even when people come back from injury, you know, [you] never know what can happen."

Nevertheless, it is a slightly incongruous moment for Rahane to be here, because that galaxy of Indian batting in which he was never the biggest star in the first place, has only become glitzier, absolutely bursting with stars. It is only because of Shreyas Iyer's injury that Rahane is back in the first place. Then, massed around him, are Shubman Gill, Ishan Kishan and, among the reserves, Suryakumar Yadav and Yashavi Jaiswal (not to mention the 25-year-old averaging 80 in first-class cricket). This must be how hip-hop heads felt when the Wu-Tang Clan were first coming together.

They're all white-ball heroes for now but guess what the world has learnt emphatically over the last year (and more gradually over the last decade)? That being more white-ball is the latest secret to red-ball cricket.

Most likely none of this will faze Rahane, a man who has always appeared more secure in his own skin and his game. A man whose unassuming presence, droopy eyes and sharply sloping shoulders, have long been used to shouldering some pretty heavy burdens.

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