There is a thing about textbook-style technique in cricket. Purists love it, while the dashing, modern-day cricket fans hate it. Chances are that most modern-day players with an impeccable technique and average strike-rate remain stuck to the Test team with a leash.
Ajinkya Rahane is one such individual. The poor soul has been given a rough deal by the selectors far too often in One-Day International (ODI) cricket. Rahane has constantly been shuffled in the batting order despite his stature as a senior player in the side.
He was selected in the ODI team for the Sri Lanka series despite his recent woes in the longer format of the game at home. In hindsight, he should probably have been left out to play the Ranji Trophy quarter-finals for Mumbai against Karnataka, for it would have better prepared him for the challenges in South Africa.
India sorely need Rahane in overseas Tests. Like his mentor, Rahul Dravid, Rahane is a figure of composure and tenacity. He brings calm to the storm and silences the ruckus with his still head and solid defence. In a team of delightful, extravagant, flamboyant cricketers, Rahane is an outlaw; one who adheres to the cricket rulebooks and plays as the situation demands.
In ODI cricket, he is a misfit or so, feels the Indian management. He has often been used as a stop-gap option at the top to ensure that one of Rohit Sharma or Shikhar Dhawan get enough time away from the frenzied world of ODIs.
In the past, he was used as a middle-order batsman too until MS Dhoni pointed out that Rahane's lack of strike-rotation affects India’s middle-overs. Dhoni might have been right. Rahane does get a tad stuck at the crease, bides his time to get into groove and then plays freely. These are a qualities best suited for opening batsmen. But India do not have a vacancy there with Rohit and Dhawan sealing their spots with scintillating performances.
If Rahane needs to play now, one of Rohit or Dhawan should be missing. Rohit, India’s stand-in skipper for the ongoing series against Sri Lanka also spoke along those lines after the first ODI at Dharamsala.
"I think we made it clear in Sri Lanka that he is an opening batsman and we don't want to keep changing his batting slot. It plays on anyone's mind not just his, if one's batting order is kept on changing”, Rohit had said.
In a way, Rohit is right. Rahane's best has always come as an opening batsman. But in conditions where the ball swings around, shouldn't Rahane, India’s most equipped batsman technically, be in the playing XI, as opener or not?
Rahane's last four scores in ODIs are all half-centuries — all against Australia in the home series in September — and the Mumbaikar has churned them out opening the batting. In fact, the last time Rahane played an ODI and didn't open the innings was in January, 2016, in Australia.
During that ODI series, Rahane played three games, batted twice at No 4 and made scores of 89 and 50 at strike rates of 111.25 and 90.90. Overall, he averages 37.00 in 20 ODIs at No 4 with five half-centuries. Compare this to his three hundreds as opener and you know that Rohit has a point when he states Rahane should open.
But we aren't here to compare his stats as an opener and middle-order batsman. We are here to assess why Rahane was left out from the playing XI in Dharamsala where India succumbed to 29/7 against Suranga Lakmal's menacing fast bowling.
Would Rahane have stopped the slide and uplifted India from the abyss on Sunday? Probably not. But that he was India's best shot at doing it is known to everyone. Even after being cognizant of the fact that the conditions in Dharamsala demanded for the inclusion of a technically adept batsman, India chose to be complacent and walked out with a fairly inexperienced middle-order.
It was downright rude to expose Manish Pandey and Shreyas Iyer in the early stages of their career to a rampaging Lakmal on one of the most difficult pitches in the country. With India missing Virat Kohli as well, the middle-order was devoid of experience and the presence of Ajinkya Rahane would have been of utmost relief to these youngsters. After all, he is the Test vice-captain and has time and again proven his prowess against the swinging ball.
Where did India’s horses for courses policy vanish then? A year ago, skipper Virat Kohli had stated that India would like to choose their players for a game based on the pitch and conditions.
“We see the conditions and the way the pitch is going to behave and we pick the best XI. We specialise in choosing people according to the way the wicket is going to behave maybe on the third and fourth day as well. So you need to keep everything in consideration. It’s always a good thing to have a lot of options because you pick the best side according to the conditions we are playing in. The best part is that everyone’s bought into the idea, and it’s not hard to inform the players that someone else is playing for them. They understand that it’s eventually for the larger reason, which is to make the team win. So everyone’s at peace with that, the vision we have for the team. Obviously we are going to pick the best XI according to the conditions”, Kohli had told Wisden India.
But of late, that policy seems to have disappeared. In the Champions Trophy final, on a pitch which aided early swing and seam movement, Mohammad Amir wreaked havoc, disintegrating the Indian batting line-up and shunning them to an embarrassing loss. All the while, Rahane stood in the sidelines and watched the drama unfold in the crudest of forms.
A month later, he was back to opening the batting in the West Indies and ended the series with scores of 62, 103, 72, 60 and 39. He was adjudged the Man of the Series. When Jason Holder and his team of seam bowlers made life difficult for India, Rahane was among the only few players to stand up and fight.
When the Lanka ODIs began, Rahane was once again sidelined from the opening slot with the settled pair of Dhawan and Rohit returning, and even the middle-order was full with Lokesh Rahul picked at No 4 — a position that doesn't suit him — to deal with the Lankan spinners.
The move came apart horribly. Rahul struggled immensely against Akila Dananjaya's wily mystery spin and was ousted from the team. Once again, it was harsh. Rahul was made to play out of position and never got a chance to fight for his place in the side in a fair manner.
Rahane, on the other hand, played just one match in the series but was back at the top for the Australian ODIs at home with Shikhar Dhawan resting. He was outstanding once again, racking up scores of 55, 70, 53 and 61 in the series. That he played as an opener is not very relevant in the current context.
In Kolkata, for the first Test against Sri Lanka on a seaming deck, India left out Murali Vijay and chose Dhawan and Lokesh Rahul as their openers. It was once again a deviation from their standard of playing the right players in the right conditions. Vijay roared back with two hundreds in the remainder of the series.
The Dharamsala ODI was just another of those instances when logic flew out of the window. If a senior player like Rahane — good enough to oppose the best of bowlers in the toughest of conditions — is available in the side, why did the management sit him out on a seamer-friendly wicket?
The fact that India conveniently chose to ignore the safety net that Rahane provides belies logic. When Lakmal and Pradeep were unleashing their wrath on the Indian batsmen, Rahane could have been the solid wall, refusing to budge and helping India past the difficult, initial few overs. Instead he watched from the bench as the Lankan lions roared in the picturesque Dharamsala.
The next ODI is scheduled to be played in Mohali which is once again known to favour the quicker bowlers. India can choose to persist with the same XI and destroy the confidence of a few youngsters or bring back Rahane and strengthen their middle-order while the younger guns bat around him. The decision could prove to be a series-changing one.