In the 17th over of the Indian innings in Bengaluru, Rohit Sharma smacked Adam Zampa for consecutive sixes over long on. They brought up his half-century as well as the second-successive century partnership with Ajinkya Rahane. In the ensuing momentary celebration, a small factoid had been missed — up until that point Rohit was trailing Rahane in strike rate as India went about chasing 335.
That is what Rohit can do — change the situation quickly with some lusty hitting. His game has evolved completely in limited-overs formats. But this isn’t about him. Instead, it is about how Rahane has upped his own batting style a notch to fit in the Indian top order with complete ease in the recent months. Another factoid here illustrates this amply — in Kolkata, on a tough, two-paced wicket he added 102 runs with Virat Kohli for the second wicket, and Rahane’s strike rate (85.93) matched Kohli’s (85.98).
Even in Indore, while India chased 294 and the two openers set an aggressive tone, Rahane scored 70 off 76 balls at a strike rate of 92.10. The underlying point is one of modulation in his batting for a slower scoring rate was one of the key complaints against his inclusion in India’s ODI/T20I plans. Leave the shortest format though — since June, Rahane has resurrected his ODI career with aplomb.
It began in the West Indies, wherein Rahane finished man-of-the-match with 336 runs from five ODIs, inclusive of a hundred and three half-centuries. While most of the Indian cricket fandom slept early considering how this was just another bilateral series after the loss to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final, on the other side of the world, Rahane notched up his highest-ever total in an ODI series (five matches or more). Of course, it helped that he was batting in his preferred spot in the batting lineup, opening whilst Rohit was afforded some rest.
This aspect — batting spot — brings in another angle to what has been a surprisingly topsy-turvy career for Rahane, a batsman far better than what his ODI figures suggest. After 83 ODIs, he only has a career-average of 34.94. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that he has batted in the middle order the past 2-3 years averaging only 32.22 in 23 innings. Compare that to his recent run since June, whilst opening in 10 ODIs, he is scoring at 52.4, perhaps a truer reflection of his ability.
Is it a surprise that much of this has been achieved since Kohli’s full-time captaincy began and the team management duly announced that Rahane was no longer an option for the middle order, but a proper third-choice opener? Chief selector MSK Prasad clearly stated this when announcing the team for the Champions Trophy. Kohli said the same in England, and then again in Sri Lanka. Significantly enough, these spoken words have been held true, as Rahane has not been considered for the middle order in a long, long time.
There is certain clarity of thought here from Kohli and the selectors. And clearly, it is helping Rahane in this current phase of his limited-overs career. Ahead of the Indore ODI, he had spoken about different mindset when it comes to batting up top as compared to the middle order. It was a reflection of the many subtle differences in technique and approach for a batsman asked to perform such dual roles with regularity.
The situations you encounter when opening are vary greatly when you are batting in the middle. It is why Sachin Tendulkar excelled at what he did, and MS Dhoni excels at what he does — the two are not interchangeable.
For a long time, Rahane did not have this clarity in his ODI role, or in fact in his limited-overs role entirely. It is something that differs from selector to selector, and from captain to captain. Perhaps the previous captain, Dhoni, didn’t see any better options available for the middle order whilst building for the 2015 ODI World Cup and he backed Rahane to do this particular job. He responded with a brilliant attacking half-century against South Africa at the packed MCG.
Dhoni had asked Rahane to perform a dual opening/middle-order role because from the captain’s point of view, this was an indispensable player, one who simply couldn’t be left out of the playing XI. That situation has changed drastically in the last two years when Rahane hasn’t played enough ODI cricket, at least not as much as he would have liked to. It is only now, with clarity in thought process about what the team management wants from him, the Mumbai batsman is slowly starting to make an impact again.
Here’s the pickle though. Like the Dhoni-Rahane relationship, currently Kohli holds KL Rahul in this same mould — a player who is indispensable and cannot be left out of the ODI squad. He was tried in the middle order, asked to do a similar dual role like Rahane, and that experiment has proven short lived given Rahul’s failure to adapt in Sri Lanka. So much so, that Kohli and the team management have already moved on, juggling Hardik Pandya and Manish Pandey at No 4.
As such, the underlying question is this. How soon will Rahul get another chance, and will it be at the opening spot, not in the middle? More importantly, has Rahane done enough to hold his spot in the ODI squad as first-choice ‘third’ opener?