In cricket, when a batter takes the strike to face the ball, the one part of him or her can be seen on the field or on our TV screens. The other part of the athlete is hidden inside him or her. Nobody can trace the beat of his or her heart, the flow of the blood in the veins, the brain's mechanism, which tells him or her about the last performance, that ball that took the edge and went to the keeper. The inside edge that chopped on to the stump. The one inswinger which he or she thought would go away after pitching but came in. The pull shot in the previous match which did not come good.
This inner self of a cricketer is the most interesting version, the one which never speaks during the presentation ceremonies, at the press conferences, in the 'Koffee' shows. However, this inner self exposes itself with each failure. It takes huge mental strength to deal with it and nobody knows how to do that job including the two Rajasthan Royals captains, one former and the other present – Ajinkya Rahane and Steve Smith.
Till the 36th match of IPL 2019, Steve Smith was an absent-minded batsman. Had he not played further in the tournament, it would not have been a big deal for anyone. He merely existed, it appeared for his team even after a flurry of low scores. Also present but absent was Rahane, the classic batsman that everyone knows. On the morning of 20 April, however, everything changed. Rahane, who was leading the side and who was continuously failing at the job, was asked to hand over the captaincy to Smith. Leading his first match in the tournament, Smith played an unbeaten knock of 59 runs, which paved way for his side's 5-wicket win against Mumbai Indians.
Royals played Delhi Capitals in the next match and Rahane blasted his way to the second IPL ton of his career. Yes, this was a T20 hundred but it had all the credentials to live up to the greatness of a Test knock as well. Filled with textbook cricket shots fuelled by the clarity inside the batsman's mind, it was a knock made in heaven. It was as if the supernatural powers got together and made it happen.
But frankly, all the effort on this author's part to come with a metaphor for that innings is a bad attempt at reflecting the magnanimity of the knock. Rahane would've spent a lot of time in the nets to overcome his technical glitches if there were any, and many battles would've been fought inside the little human brain of his between his blind self versus his hidden self. And in overcoming the disappointment of having been told that he was not an able leader to take this side to an IPL title.
To give that knock a better definition, Rajasthan Royals coach Paddy Upton told Firstpost, "I think Rahane scored probably one of the best hundreds in IPL, in terms of clean batsmanship."
Upton was one of the major forces during India's 2011 World Cup campaign, who joined the team not long before the major tournament as a mental conditioning coach. He is one of the few who understands that 'inner self' of a player and is out with a book now called The Barefoot Coach, where he talks about winning, inspiration and the unusual aspects of his coaching.
He gave his observation on both Rahane and Smith's transformation in the later half of the tournament.
He said, "It is impossible for these top players to be in form all the time. They are always one innings away from something clicking and then going on to play a big innings. And then continue to do it for 5 to 6 innings and then going off again. Very often the timing is random. What we try to do is spot what really happens."
So was it a coincidence that Rahane and Smith discovered their lost mojo at the same stage of the league? Or did unburdening Rahane off captaincy and giving the same role to Smith had something to do with it?
Upton said, "Rahane was going to find form at some stage. Likewise, Steve Smith up till that stage had not found form. So was it coincidence or was it unburdening Rahane off captaincy? Giving Smith the captaincy which he absolutely loves. Maybe, these things had a part to play."
But then Upton points out the one other aspect in a cricketer which helps him overcome all his failures – the ability to absorb it. Upton said, "It was just awesome to see how Rahane was magnanimous and mature in handing over the captaincy to Smith. And then seeing him play that knock was fantastic."
For Smith, there were many internal battles as well. IPL 2019 was an important tournament for the former Australia captain. This was going to be the first major tournament he would be part of after the ball-tampering scandal ban. His performance here mattered a great deal going into the 2019 World Cup. His mental state would have been completely different when he entered the tournament, just as a batsman. Also, the fact that he had just undergone an elbow surgery must have played on his mind and in some way, was going to affect his batting.
Upton said, "There were two things with Steve. One was his mind around his batting. Purely because of elbow surgery and that he was heavily taped, he was not able to straighten his front arm and it does appear in the batting mechanics. It was one case of wondering how quickly he was able to get back to batting in Indian conditions with a slightly compromised front arm and slightly changed technique. There were some question which he certainly answered later on in the tournament.
"Also, that experience (ball-tampering episode and the eventual ban) has grounded him as a person. He spent time deepening foundations of his leadership and character. I think he has come back as a far better human. He was a positive, contributing team member, he was connecting to Indian players. He was really an asset off the field to the team."
For anyone else, taking the leadership role midway through a tournament could have been a big headache. The tournament has been cruel to many tried and tested international captains anyway. And there are no motivating examples of those who took the roles midway through IPL and did well. But for Smith, captaining Royals at almost half-way stage of the tournament came as an opportunity-in-disguise. He saw it as a chance to go back to good old days of captaining a side and contributing with the bat as well, proving yet again how captaincy helps him do better as a batsman.
Upton shared the same thought, when he said, "Smith loves being involved in cricket. Because of his elbow, he was fielding inside the circle, so he could not throw from the deep. He was uninvolved. He was supporting Rahane but he was not as involved as he wanted to be. When he got captaincy, every ball he was busy.
"Year and a half ago, RR picked Smith to do this job (captaincy). We could not give it to him last year because of obvious reasons. This year, when we realised he was fit, then he was given the captaincy back."
In Upton's last sentence, lies the future of Rajasthan Royals. Maybe when Rajasthan start afresh next year, they will have a clear-minded and confident Rahane at the top of the order and Smith as captain, scoring runs in abundance. The amalgamation of these two happenings will be enough to see this team make the playoffs. For when it happens, the world should look back to how these two players overcame their batting demons, insecurities, failures and became stronger at the end of the tournament in 2019.