India vs England: Ajinkya Rahane's ODI approach harks back to openers from pre-Twenty20 era

Ajinkya Rahane must have a natural affinity for the number 91 – his first man of the match score, at Mohali against England. Both the opposition and the number revisited him in the second warm-up tie at the Brabourne stadium, under eerily indistinguishable circumstances. The first of those 91s came at a nascent stage of his career, when his forays into the side were merely as a stop gap choice, whenever the bigwigs took a mid-season stupor. However, between then and now, Rahane's story has failed to turn a page.

Ajinkya Rahane in the series against New Zealand. AFP

Ajinkya Rahane in the series against New Zealand. AFP

Even now when he walks out to bat for India in One Day Internationals (ODIs), a disquieting uncertainty lingers tangibly. The constant shuffling, no matter how much of a team man one might claim to be, cannot possibly have helped. He batted in the middle order for a major part of the last couple of years, but before he could really find his moorings, an injury to Shikhar Dhawan forced him back up at top against New Zealand. In fact, throughout his ODI career, he has meandered in this state of ambivalence.

Paradoxically, his only two hundreds have also come with Dhawan for company at the other end. In both those matches, at Edgbaston and Cuttack, he was involved in opening stands worth 183 and 231 with Dhawan. Unfortunately, that curious statistic is slightly counterproductive from Rahane's point of view. It suggests that rarely has a moment in ODIs belonged solely to India's most consistent Test batsman. Rarely has Rahane been a star on the ODI podium. While team dynamics have not helped his cause, his own approach has been that of an opener from the pre-Twenty20 era.

ODIs are no longer viewed as a microcosm of Tests. Thus, the tactic of gradually building an innings towards an almighty assault in the end, too, is a relic of the medieval past. The likes of David Warner, Quinton de Kock, Alex Hales and Rohit Sharma have consistently proved that. Their individual bests comfortably exceed 170, further exemplifying their ability to sustain an attack on the opposition. Rahane's, on the other hand, is a time honoured 111.

The role of an opener, that earlier demanded attributes congruous with Test cricket, evolved unrecognisably at the turn of the century. It underwent further reinvention with the advent of T20, shrinking boundaries-expanding bats, and most recently, the use of two new balls: a lip-smacking proposition in a standardised, global batting haven, where scores of over 300 are the norm.

The inflation in scores since the maiden Twenty20 International (T20I) paint a lucid picture: between the first ODI in 1971 and the first T20I in 2005, the 350-run barrier was breached just 12 times. Since that fateful T20I encounter between Australia and New Zealand, the number has proliferated to 96. Under the circumstances, a strike rate of 77.02 (as opener) hardly warrants continued selection. By sharp contrast, Rohit strikes at 88.52 and Dhawan supersedes even Rohit, at 90.26 runs per hundred balls. In an entire innings, that makes a difference of close to 30 runs – a sizable margin of defeat in ODIs.

Warner strikes at 95.05, de Kock at 95.24 and Hales at 95.45. Even Kane Williamson, who bats in much the same mould as Rahane, gets his runs quicker, at 84. Hashim Amla at 89.66 has a far superior batting average to boot. Even if one were to consider that Rahane may occasionally encounter slow and sluggish surfaces at home, his numbers outside the sub-continent are only marginally better.

Part of the reason why Rahane struggles to emulate people like Amla and Williamson is because he tends to operate in dot balls or boundaries, rather than between them. Being a touch player, who merely whispers an incantation to put the ball away, Rahane's boundary options are slightly restrained when the field retreats. This is precisely the moment when he usually meets his demise. The moment the boundaries dry up, he is trapped in a straitjacket, unable to break free sans self-destruction.

Take the example of the fourth​ ODI against New Zealand at Ranchi, where Rahane top scored with a 70-ball 57. In that knock he was successful in scoring off only half of the deliveries faced. An innings that began with a flurry of boundaries and a six hobbled once the field restrictions were lifted, before reaching a premature denouement. His first 25 runs came at a breakneck speed -- 26 balls, while the next 32 took a much slower 44 balls. His strike rate plummeted dramatically, from almost 100 to 72, and an untimely dismissal naturally thwarted any possibility of a late surge.

Rahane's innings construction can often mirror the narrative of a mystery novel, that ceases to reach a crescendo. His scoring rate is susceptible to plateauing after an initial show of intent, and he has shown an unfortunate penchant for throwing it away before the possibility of shifting gears into a final flourish even occurs.

Published Date: Jan 13, 2017 12:44 PM | Updated Date: Jan 13, 2017 19:09 PM

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