It was 2011. To say that England had whitewashed India would have been an understatement. Humiliated would be the right word. The Indian cricket team, led by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, went to the United Kingdom as the top ranked Test team, only to be handed a 4-0 series loss by Andrew Strauss and his men. The tide would turn in the limited overs leg, they said.
At that juncture of the tour, Ajinkya Rahane, who had an average of 67.72 in first class cricket, made his T20I debut. Call it a selection blunder or poor planning, it now seems ironic that the format in which Rahane is supposed to struggle the most provided him his first breakthrough in international cricket. The Mumbai batsman didn’t have staggering numbers in the Indian Premier League (IPL) that season, but he put together a boundary-laden innings of 61 at a strike rate of 156.41 that helped India post a decent total. Alas, it wasn’t sufficient, nothing wasn’t on that abysmal tour!
Rahane went on to make his ODI debut in the same series. His scores in the series were 40, 54, 0, 38, 26. It wasn’t exactly a ‘set the world on fire’ kind of performance. But it was good enough to keep him in the squad. That’s how his 50-overs career has been really. He contributes just so much and ensures he will get another chance. In all the ODI series he has been a part of, his average has never crossed 50 (barring a series against Zimbabwe where he hit a fifty in the only match he played). Both his centuries were scored in 2014, three years after his debut. The first came in a chase where the required run rate was marginally above four, a game which is perfectly suited for his style of play. The second one followed two months later and was a run-a-ball affair against Sri Lanka in the first innings.
Amidst all this, Rahane came to be known as a bankable and versatile Test batsman. There was a player who didn't mutter a single word in protest despite warming the bench for 16 months. He could have been a part of the Mumbai team that won the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy title, but no, he was carrying drinks for his teammates. Seven players made their debuts before him while his place in the playing eleven was blocked by Sachin Tendulkar. Rahane had no option but to wait.
Although his first appearance for India in the white clothes was unsuccessful, he didn't take much time to prove his mettle in the longest format. Just in his third match, he scored a valiant 96 in South Africa against an attack that had Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morke in its ranks. That was not all. He scored tons in New Zealand, England, Australia. All wondered what hindered Rahane, a player who managed to score that century in Lord's in trying conditions, in the 50-overs format.
The constant change in batting positions, could have been the reason behind the dilemma. His introduction in ODIs was as an opener before the duo of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma cemented their places at the top. Former captain Dhoni then asked him to bat in the middle order. However, that didn’t bear fruit. His returns for the 21 times he batted at No 4 were 703 runs at a modest average of 37. Subsequently, he was asked by Dhoni to improve the skill of rotating the strike in middle overs on wickets that were slow.
His most recent selections in the ODI squad have come largely due to the absence of other openers. During the New Zealand series, Dhawan and KL Rahul were not available due to injuries which made Rahane an automatic option. It was a wonderful opportunity for the Mumbai batsman but he couldn't grab it. Despite getting starts against the Kiwis, his lack of ability to keep the scoreboard ticking once the field spreads came back to haunt him. At the end of the series, the 28-year-old had just a solitary fifty to show.
What added to his worries was the dip in his Test form and an injury which ruled him out of the last two matches against England last year. Rohit's absence meant that he got a place in the India's ODI squad against England in 2017 but he was snubbed for the T20I squad. The series against England was dubbed as Rahane's final opportunity to rebuild his ODI career and make the cut for Champions Trophy 2017. There was a fix however. Indian coach Anil Kumble revealed before the series that Rahane was being seen as a top order batsman.
Looking at the long-term, as far as the Champions Trophy was concerned, Rohit's place was certain once he regained fitness. That brings us to Rahane's competitors for the other opening slot: Rahul and Dhawan.
Dhawan too was having a lean patch leading upto the England series but Kohli opted for Dhawan in the first two matches. But the Delhi batsman couldn't convert those chances. As a result of which, Rahane was included for the third ODI in Kolkata. This was Rahane's best platform to ascertain that he boards the plane to England in June. But David Willey put paid to his hopes when he bowled an absolute beauty to castle Rahane.
It felt like all the bad luck was following Rahane when he endured a poor Indian Premier League (IPL) season with Rising Pune Supergiant this year. His vital contribution in the play-off and final against Mumbai Indians may have helped his cause for selection for the Champions Trophy, but the selectors hardly had an option after the news came in that Rahul would not recover in time for the ICC tournament.
Rahane's current situation is as gloomy as it could possibly ever be. It wouldn't be long before Rahul knocks the selector's door for India's next ODI assignment. Whenever that happens, Rahane will most certainly be the batsman who will face the axe. To ensure that doesn't happen, he will have to put up a stellar show in whatever limited opportunities he gets at the Champions Trophy to redeem his ODI career.