Indian cricket is in a quandary as far as Ajinkya Rahane is concerned. The undeniable talent of Rahane is perhaps laid to waste as the management struggles to solve the riddle - where does he fit in the batting lineup. The methodical batsman is left wondering about what needs to be done to secure his place in the team, especially in the shortest form of the game, ahead of the Asia Cup. Despite working hard on his game and performing consistently at every opportunity, he is still forced to live in a world of uncertainty.
It is nearly incredible that one even needs to discuss a spot on the team for Rahane. The classy batsman has a strike rate of 55.50 in tests, 79.61 in one day internationals (at an average of just over 33), and 114.08 in T20 internationals. Despite impressive numbers, the team management is still not sure how and where they might be able to fit Rahane into their plans for the Asia Cup and ICC World T20 that follows next month.
The return to form of Shikhar Dhawan and an established Rohit Sharma have made the opening slots their own, shutting any steady opportunity for Rahane to work at a position where he seems to fit best. With Virat Kohli owning the number three slot in all forms of the game, Rahane has been forced to fish elsewhere to sustain his place in the team.
Suresh Raina has locked down the number four position with his explosive power and mercurial skills, pushing Rahane’s options further down the order. Given MS Dhoni’s penchant for the finish, the skipper has often chosen to promote himself up the order at times to guide the team home and recently even to regain some lost touch.
Rahane has clearly been short changed in the bargain. Over the past ten one day internationals that he has batted in, Rahane has collected half a dozen 50s batting everywhere from one through seven in the order. It is a management predicament that belittles the wonderful batsman’s consistency and perseverance.
“I prefer to bat in any position. And I have said that many times before,” said the soft-spoken Mumbaikar, in a presser at Dharamsala in December. “Whatever the situation and whatever conditions, I always look to improve my game and I always like to give more than my one hundred percent on the field.”
The young batsman was seen spending the weekend in the nets under the watchful eyes of Praveen Amre. Rahane, who is in the 15 for the Asia Cup and World T20, was working on some big shots seeking to up the ante ahead of these two important competitions.
Unfortunately for Rahane, the re-emergence of Yuvraj Singh and the captain’s perceptions are making it extremely hard to nudge himself into contention for a spot in the middle order.
Speaking with the press last week, Dhoni nearly shut the door on any immediate aspirations for Rahane. "When both the openers perform well, it makes life slightly difficult for the skipper," he said. "Rahane, at the end of the day, is a fantastic player but you also have to consider the fact that in Twenty20, he is somebody who has done really well when he is opening the batting.”
"If you look at the team we have got for the Twenty20 World Cup, you find it difficult to find a place for him," said Dhoni in a very blunt and telling comment. The skipper also believes that Rahane struggles to pace his innings on slow wickets, which could be the norm in the upcoming World T20 in India.
“We have seen that he plays a lot better when there is pace on a wicket. Whenever he has played, number four or five, if the wicket is slow, he has struggled to rotate the strike freely. Especially when he is starting his innings he has a bit of trouble. It’s not easy,” said Dhoni.
Incidentally, Rahane is acutely aware of his skipper’s views, adding to the pressure on the young batsman. In the recent ODI series against Sri Lanka, where Rahane played at three in the absence of Virat Kohli, the burden on his mind was obvious to the eye and it clearly affected his performances.
Rahane has also spoken in the past about working hard to get consistency on different wickets. But it is easier said than done when consistency and talent isn’t enough to buy a place in the playing eleven - the team's balance takes precedence.
Rahane’s struggles aren’t an isolated phenomenon. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid to varying degrees fought their own grim battles against perception in an effort to carve out a place for themselves in the one day scheme of things. Laxman got sidelined completely, but Dravid moved up and down the order and even kept wickets to ensure his place on the field.
Things might well change after the World T20 with the possible exit of Yuvraj Singh and perhaps, Dhoni himself, when Rahane can shoot for a more consistent presence in the team at the middle order. There seems to be universal agreement that it is a position that might suit Rahane in the long run.
Rahane will need some really good counsel as he deals with the disappointment of his present situation. Dhoni has a wealth of options at his disposal allowing him the luxury of leaving out a jewel with the pedigree of Rahane to the comforts of the dressing room.
But as Sharda Ugra pointed out from Colombo last year, Rahane is a contemporary conventional who is too good to be lost for Indian cricket in any form of the game. He has the tools and technique needed to deliver consistent results for the team. The sooner we find a settled place for Rahane, the better it shall be for the future of our cricket.
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