India vs Australia: An acid Test for captain Ajinkya Rahane

When Ajinkya Rahane last captained India in a Test against Australia, in March 2017, he was in that phase of his career when he could do little wrong. Pitched into leadership in the deciding last game of an intensely-fought series after injury to Virat Kohli, the Mumbai player led India to an impressive victory. He batted aggressively and captained astutely, impressing experts with his man-management and tactical awareness.

Just when everyone expected his position in the team to be an absolute certainty, his career hit a bumpy road. Some of the situations were harsh and would have made him wonder, “why me”?

That shaky phase started in January 2018. Despite an impressive overseas record, Rahane was left out of the first two Tests in South Africa, at Cape Town and Centurion -India lost both. They won the third in Johannesburg, after he was belatedly recalled.

He was ignored for the 2019 World Cup, not even considered as an injury replacement despite India’s struggle to find a No.4. Rahane also had a poor time in the IPL that preceded the World Cup after Rajasthan Royals sacked him as skipper mid-season. Things didn’t improve despite a switch to Delhi Capitals. In a jostle for spots, the senior player was left doing 12th man duties in the first-half of IPL 2020. And there was one half-century in the nine games he eventually played.

Without even analysing whether he deserved those struggles, or how good a player he is, one thing can be asserted -Rahane’s sincerity and respect for the game even in those harsh times. For his coach Pravin Amre, the former India batsman, the game has rewarded him for these two qualities in Australia.

“He is an example of respecting the game at all times. Even when he was not a member of the Delhi Capitals team, coach Ricky Ponting mentioned his work ethic and commitment to the game; may be sometimes God gives you back also. When he was not in the team, he was pushing himself and respecting the game -that is very crucial. For 13 Tests, he was in the reserves before he got the opportunity in the Indian team, so many players came from behind and played (I can relate because I was 12th man for 11 Tests). It hasn’t been an easy journey for him; it’s been a lot of grind to be in this position,” said Amre.

Amre is referring to the 32-year-old’s stint as stand-in skipper in Australia after Kohli’s return home on paternity leave. It will be a proud moment on Saturday morning for Rahane, one that should wipe out a lot of the pain suffered in the last three seasons. There is no grander stage in world cricket than the historic Melbourne Cricket Ground. To go out for toss in the Indian blazer is the ultimate dream of every cricketer. It can be said, it his favourite venue in Australia. He played one of his finest knocks here, scoring 147 on his first visit in 2014, when he dominated a stroke-filled 262-run fourth-wicket stand with Kohli (169). In one-dayers too, Rahane’s best innings in the 2015 World Cup came at the MCG, 79 off 60 balls versus South Africa.

“It is a proud moment for me leading India, obviously it is a great opportunity, responsibility as well but I don’t want to take any pressure. I think what I want to do is back my team. So focus is not on me, it is all about team and how we want to do well as a team. We are focussing on that,” the middle order batsman said.

The leadership role though could not have come to Rahane in a more challenging time. While Kohli’s absence has left a big hole in batting, Mohammed Shami’s injury has upset the balance of the bowling line-up. How he marshals his resources, effects bowling changes and field placements will be closely followed.

Amre says Rahane proved his leadership at Dharamsala. “It is not the first time he is doing that. In the 2017 series, we were one down, then he played well in Bengaluru… It was a home series, still the pressure was there, and it boiled down to the final game. He led the side, won the game and the series. It was a one-off game whereas this time he knows he will lead for almost the full series,” said Amre.

For Rahane, the lesson he took from the 2017 Test was the importance of “backing your instincts as a captain, remain calm under pressure, just back your own methods which I really focus on.”

Rahane is known for his calm demeanour. Ishant Sharma described him as a “bowler’s captain” in an interview to ESPNcricinfo on Wednesday.

STRIKE-RATE ISSUE

In that game, India chased a low fourth-innings total and lost two early wickets. Rahane counter-attacked with an unbeaten 38 off 27 balls to settle the game and series. In fact, Rahane changing his batting approach is also being seen as a reason for his recent lean phase. In the Test series in New Zealand early this year, he spent a lot of time on the crease but couldn’t force the pace. His strike rate in the four innings was 33.33 (46 off 127 balls), 38.67 (29 off 75), 25.93 (7 off 27) and 20.93 (9 off 43). On the 2014-15 Australia tour, the strike-rate was 63.54.

After the New Zealand tour, former India skipper Dilip Vengsarkar pointed out that Rahane was shaking the bat too much in the backlift. Though he didn’t get many runs, getting out playing his shots, he was fluent in IPL and in the Adelaide first innings (42) after his century in a warm-up game.

Comparisons are inevitable with Kohli’s leadership style. Amre said: “It is like John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, two different personalities but both give you the best results. Ultimately, both will take the decisions that the team wants. We can’t ask Rahane to become Kohli or ask Kohli to become Rahane.”

His challenge will be huge at the MCG, after India were routed for their lowest Test score of 36 not out in Adelaide. “When you represent India, you are like a soldier. It’s a situation like Kargil, the opposition are on top and it is an uphill task. They should always remember what our soldiers have done; that type of attitude is needed,” Amre said.

“Success and failure is part of the game but the approach will have to be strong -the media will be critical, the crowd will be against you but you have to back your skills, especially the batting unit after what they did on the last tour and got a historical victory.”

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