Over 3.1 - Nathan Coulter-Nile to Ajinkya Rahane
Coulter-Nile is getting movement off the deck and in the air and pushed the ball fuller for the Indian opener. An unperturbed Rahane unleashed a cover drive with a follow through so good that the ball almost had a Google Map laid out in front of it, guiding it to the cover boundary.
Over 3.2 - Nathan Coulter-Nile to Ajinkya Rahane
The Australian seamer bowls short of a good length and generates a bit of swing. Rahane doesn't want to drive this and pushes ever so lightly, but with such pristine timing that the ball scurries away to the fence in seconds.
These two shots pretty much sum up Ajinkya Rahane's innings at Eden Gardens. On a tricky two-paced wicket, India's opening batsman showed the way for others with some gorgeous shots on the off-side.
Such was the manner in which Rahane played outside his off-stump that most of the pressure the Aussies exerted came to nothing. Twenty-six of his first 27 runs came on the off-side. 20 of them came off sublime cover drives to the fence.
Even while Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli struggled to middle the ball, Rahane appeared least troubled and timed the ball extremely well. There is something about his technique that stands out from the rest of the modern day cricketers — his shots are so in sync with the coaching manual that one might mistake the pictures in these books as photographs of Rahane batting. There is the still head, wobble-less flow of the bat and the perfect follow-through to complete the shot that makes Rahane's batting such a pleasure to watch.
But all of this has actually worked against the Mumbaikar in ODIs. Considered Rahul Dravid's protege, Rahane has failed to break the shackles in terms of being an ODI cricketer. His scoring rate and tendency to get bogged down at the wicket have come under heavy criticism, particularly with him being largely used in a middle order role by India.
In June 2015, Rahane was dropped for an ODI against Bangladesh and India’s skipper at the time, MS Dhoni, had commented, "He needs pace. We have seen that he plays a lot better when there is pace on a wicket. Whenever he has played at No 4 or No 5, if the wicket is slow, then he struggles to rotate the strike freely. Especially when he is just starting his innings, he has a bit of trouble. It is not easy."
Dhoni wasn't entirely wrong. While Rahane has been a formidable presence in the Indian middle order in Test cricket, he has failed to do the same in limited-overs cricket. His strike rate of 79.84 in ODIs since the 2015 World Cup is the lowest for any Indian batsman with a minimum of 10 ODIs.
But that is not to say Rahane hasn't changed. His strike rate in Australia during the ODIs last year was over 100 and in West Indies in June this year, he grabbed the Man of the Series award for some eye-catching performances. Against New Zealand at home (in the five-match ODI series) and West Indies in West Indies, Rahane averaged 70+ with the bat.
But such is the nature of modern day cricket that few batsman can survive without an X-factor to their game. Rahane is all textbook and zero on the innovation chart. His game is built around the old school method of playing the ball on merit. Modern day cricket is quite contrary to this age old belief. It thrives on the Glenn Maxwell way of thinking: See ball, hit ball.
But this is largely due to the fact that most pitches around the world are skewed in favour of the batsmen. These flat pitches have allowed unorthodox shot-making to flourish irrespective of the format. Batsmen are so used to playing on these belters that when a spicy wicket comes along, they are left clueless and grasping for help.
Remember the 2017 Champions Trophy final when a rampant Mohammad AmirAmir swung the ball prodigiously to the hapless Indian batsmen? Or the IPL match in 2017 where a famed Royal Challengers Bangalore batting line-up comprising Kohli, Chris Gayle, KL Rahul, AB de Villiers and Kedar Jadhav succumbed to 49 all out against the Kolkata Knight Riders.
This is where the textbook-men come into the picture. How India would have wanted Rahane walking in at the fall of a couple of wickets in that Champions Trophy final. The unassuming former Rajasthan Royals opener has this innate ability to absorb pressure and build an innings with patience and composure.
That does not mean he isn't capable of accelerating or rotating the strike. After much criticism, Rahane has brought about a noticeable change in his batting style in limited-overs cricket. Instead of starting off slowly, Rahane ensures that he maintains a run-a-ball strike rate early on by constant strike rotation while putting away the bad balls without a second thought.
At Kolkata on Thursday, most Indian batsmen including the outstanding skipper struggled early on, but Rahane kept the Aussies on their toes with some outrageous shots. None of them were manufactured, premeditated shots. He relied on timing, placement and a still head to put away even the good deliveries shifting the momentum, which was working in Australia's favour after Rohit Sharma's wicket, India’s way.
Once Kohli settled down, Rahane did not have any qualms about playing second fiddle role to a skipper who hates being stuck at the non-striker's end. This quality of the Mumbaikar also deserves special mention. He switches between roles quite effortlessly and is least frustrated if he has to settle down as anchor, rather than don the glamourous cameo avatar. While Kohli's poor calling resulted in Rahane's run-out, he shut down his critics fairly well with this superlative innings.
He certainly has the backing of his skipper, but Rahane has come under some heavy criticism for his scoring rate in ODIs on social media. One has to feel for Rahane since he has been bullied around in the ODI batting order mercilessly, but if he can fulfill that floater role, his career might just take a giant leap.
Manish Pandey has failed to nail down the No 4 spot and if Rahane can switch between these roles according to the demands of the team, India will be more than pleased. In the West Indies in June, Kohli had stated, "It all depends on who are the guys who can do two jobs in the team; there are very few guys who can open and play in the middle order and I think (Rahane) is one of them. In the future, we see him providing more balance to us as a side in terms of taking an extra bowling option maybe.”
Like his mentor and guru, Dravid, who selflessly took up the gloves in the 2003 World Cup so that India could bring in an extra batsman, Rahane's versatility in terms of batting position and style could go a long way in helping India find the right balance for the 2019 World Cup. That the event takes place in England also augers well for Dravid's understudy. Rahane has an outstanding record away from home, something unheard of among Indian batsmen, and this could also work in his favour in ODI cricket.