Ajinkya Rahane, India's quiet hero

Ajinkya Rahane before the start of play on day three
June 09, 2023

After he pulled Pat Cummins for a six to bring up his half-century, Ajinkya Rahane kept his helmet-covered head bowed. The moment lasted barely a few seconds, but it was poignant. In that instance, Rahane probably told himself whatever he had been doing since being dropped from the Indian Test side in January 2022 was worth it.

Since then Rahane has been telling himself, and us, to be in the moment. And that nothing else matters. Whether he has featured in 80-plus Tests, led India with distinction whenever the opportunity arose, or played some great knocks over the years. Or that he was grinding it out for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, or scoring runs at a breakneck speed for Chennai Super Kings in their recent IPL triumph. None of that matters.

Rahane has played his cricket away from the spotlight, but quietly he has managed to do extraordinary things. If not for him, India might not have won the 2020-21 Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Australia. After India were bundled out for 36 in the first Test in Adelaide, he quietly took over the captaincy from Virat Kohli, who returned to India for the birth of his daughter. In the second Test, in Melbourne, Rahane scored one of the best centuries in Test history to help India level the series.

But when Rishabh Pant hit the winning runs in Brisbane to help India win the series 2-1, and virtually every Indian player charged onto the field to celebrate, Rahane stayed behind the boundary line. The Mumbai school of cricket has ingrained in him to not be loud in celebration, instead let his bat make all the noise.

On Thursday, even before he walked in with India reeling at 50 for 3 in response to Australia's 469 in the World Test Championship final at The Oval, Rahane would have blanked out all the emotions. It didn't matter to him how he found his way back into the side after nearly an 18-month absence. His shirt number was the same. His batting position was the same. And his role was the same. Moreover, to bat with the team in troubled waters was also familiar territory.

Immediately upon arrival, Rahane faced an incisive spell from Cummins, including one of the best deliveries of the match. Pitching around fourth stump, on the fuller side of the good-length band, the ball seamed in. Rahane, who was rooted in his crease, was forced to play but the ball straightened just a wee bit to beat his outside edge and rap him on the back thigh. It was in line with off stump, and umpire Richard Illingworth didn't hesitate in raising his finger. But Cummins had overstepped.

The Australia captain pitched the next ball on an almost identical spot. On this occasion, the ball moved in sharply to jab Rahane's right index finger, which had to be taped.

The four earlier in the over was already a distant memory. It had taken him to 17, where Rahane would stay stuck for 23 balls. But he was not worried. After facing the white Kookaburra for two months in the IPL, and adjusting to the varying lengths, uneven bounce and relentless questions from Cummins, Scott Boland, Cameron Green and Mitchell Starc was part of the joy of Test cricket.

The striking feature of Rahane's innings on day two was that he never looked in a rush or ruffled. But on Friday, he did ensure that the scoreboard kept ticking. The boundaries came via the skillfully carved out steers between gully and point, and the punched drives off the front foot through covers.

On a testing pitch against a high-quality attack mistakes were bound to happen, but luck was Rahane's pal more than once. On 72, he played away from his body at a full ball on fifth stump from Cummins; the outside edge, though, was spilled by David Warner, who possibly was distracted by Alex Carey's movement.

It did not bother Rahane. When Nathan Lyon came on to bowl about 20 minutes before lunch, he skipped out of his crease to drive the offspinner through cover-point for four. The pace at which Rahane and Shardul Thakur were scoring started to bother Australia, and the attacking field of the morning changed with fielders pushed deep.

A century on comeback was rudely denied by the catch of the Test by Green at gully, but Rahane did not bite his lip. He had done his job admirably: not only did he prove his worth again, that he was still capable of pulling the team out of a spot of bother on difficult pitches, but he also helped Thakur stay at the crease despite the latter being peppered by the seamers.

Thakur, who was also making a comeback having played his previous Test last July against England, said that Rahane had told him the one way they could rebuild the innings was by giving feedback to each other on Australia's bowling plans. Rahane told Thakur to quickly point it out if he committed any mistake.

It is this down-to-earth nature of Rahane, his willingness to learn and treat everyone as an equal, is what earns him the respect of his peers and former greats. That is what makes him a hero for youngsters.

And that respect is what drives Rahane to do some amazing stuff. On the 2018 tour of South Africa, Rahane had been dropped for the first two Tests of the three-match series, which India lost. Rahane would reveal later that he was "hurt" and "disappointed" but when told by the team management that he would play the final Test in Johannesburg, he told himself it was the "best opportunity to become a hero". Rahane scored 48, the highest contribution in India's second innings on a pitch which the ICC would rate poor because of dangerous bounce. He himself likened it to a century as South Arica lost by 63 runs chasing 241.

Probably, that's what Rahane was telling himself after his fifty on Friday morning: "You can be the hero if you stay in the moment." His innings was a blend of composure, calmness, skills and courage.

The challenge for him and the reason for being dropped remain the same - can he score the big runs consistently? But that's a question for another day. For now, he is the reason India still have some hope of drawing, or even winning, this Test.

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