The bells toll for Ajinkya Rahane. Appointed vice-captain for the tough tour of South Africa, he is guaranteed a place in the playing eleven for the first Test starting Friday. But beyond that, the middle-order batsman has to show character and consistency to justify the extraordinary faith placed in him.
Rahane has been in the Indian team for close to five years and in that period has played 43 Tests. This is by no means an ordinary feat, particularly as there is tremendous competition for berths in the Indian team.
The short-statured Mumbai batsman began his international career promisingly enough and had a couple of good overseas hundreds, in New Zealand and Australia. But over the last 12 months his batting has flattered to deceive.
Runs, the yardstick to judge a batsman, have not been coming off his blade with any degree of consistency. But because others, mainly skipper Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, were scoring heavily, Rahane’s failure did not impact the team.
However, South Africa would be a different matter altogether. The team would require every batsman to pull his weight in every outing, and unless Rahane can step up consistently, he would be letting the team down in one of its most challenging contests in recent times.
The uncomfortable truth about Rahane and his batting is that in the last 12 months, things have been going mostly downhill. He has just 554 runs to show from 11 Tests at a very pedestrian average of 34.62.
To put this performance in perspective, during the same period, Kohli has an aggregate of 1,064 runs in 10 Tests at a phenomenal average of 76 while Pujara, from 11 Tests, has slammed 1,140 runs at a remarkable average of 67.05.
It would not be out of place to point out that Kohli’s average is more than double that of Rahane. Pujara’s performance too towers over that of the Mumbai batsman.
The worrying aspect of Rahane’s performance is that it is not just Kohli and Pujara’s excellence that make his look ordinary. Even KL Rahul, just two years into international cricket, has outpaced and outshined him over the past one year.
Rahul’s aggregate of 633 runs from nine Tests this past year at an average of 48.69 must surely serve as a moment of truth for Rahane. It should show the vice-captain that he lags behind not just the performance of fellow seniors, but even a relatively junior player like Rahul.
Even Shikhar Dhawan, who only played during the second half of last year, piled up 550 runs from six matches for a very impressive average of 68.75. Thus whichever way you see it, Rahane is at the bottom end of the batting pile, so to speak.
Of course, those amazingly loyal Mumbai commentators would have everyone believe that Rahane is in the team for taking catches in slips. Yes, fielding is very much part of the game but that’s not the sole reason for his inclusion in the squad.
In South Africa, in particular, Rahane needs to bat like the senior batsman that he is. At number five or six he has to provide support to the top-order batsmen and later try and stitch together partnerships with lower-order batsmen. He has to also guide the innings through the second new ball, if need be. In short, Rahane, as an experienced, senior batsman, must control the innings with strokeplay or dour defence as the need of the hour might dictate.
All along, he needs to consistently come up with sizeable scores that would boost the team’s total and his confidence. And he needs to do this not just once, but over multiple innings in South Africa. Unless he does that he would be deemed a pushover by the South African pacers.
The likes of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are highly experienced and primed to sniff out the slightest chink in the opposition’s armour. Then, there is the raw pace of young Kagiso Rabada who raced to the milestone of 100 Test wickets in only his 22nd match. He will be a handful on South African pitches. Rahane must set these three pacemen in his sights and strive to come out on top every time he confronts them.
Batting at number five or six he would be in an ideal position to anchor the innings or take it to greater heights. Indeed there has been so much of time and effort invested in him that this South Africa tour is payback time.
Rahane should never forget that a triple centurion, Karun Nair, was axed in the very next Test just because the team management wanted to hand back Rahane his place in the playing eleven. Young Karun, only the second Indian batsman to make a triple ton — 303 not out against England — had his confidence shattered by the sacking and has never been the same.
Of course, it is not Rahane’s fault that the selectors chose to play ducks and drakes with a young talented cricketer’s career. But at least he can get a few runs to show that the selectors’ sacrifice of Karun was not in vain. South Africa would be a good setting for Rahane to make amends and set right the anomaly of 2017.