As India began their 191-run chase in Dharamsala on Sunday, an intriguing graphic came up on TV. It reflected Ajinkya Rahane’s international career thus far: 2,209 runs in 29 Tests at an average of 51.37; 2,093 runs in 67 One Day Internationals (ODIs) at an average of 33.22.
“He has been impressive in Test cricket wherever he has gone,” said commentator Sanjay Manjrekar. “The ODI numbers are surprising though. He would like to improve on those,” added fellow commentator Simon Doull.
This sums up Rahane’s standing in Indian cricket today. He is currently India’s best Test batsman, ahead of Virat Kohli and certainly ahead of Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara. The other three have had their share of ups and downs in the last few years, mostly during the exhausting overseas cycle. Rahane has thrived in that period.
Since his poor Test debut in Delhi against Australia in March 2013 (he made 7 and 1), he is yet to fail. From South Africa (2013) to New Zealand (2016), he has scored over 90 in at least one inning of every Test series. Rahane is India’s new “Mr Dependable”.
The same cannot be said of his ODI cricket. He made his debut in 2011, on that ill-fated tour of England, and failed to nail down his spot in the playing eleven.
There are two reasons for this. First, his inconsistency prevented him from getting a steady run as opener. Since his debut, he batted up top for nearly a season, until the home series against England in 2012-13.
From his debut till 2013, when he was moved down, he could only manage 404 runs in 16 matches (averaging 25.25).
Shikhar Dhawan secured one opening slot with his initial displays. Later, the team management decided to push up Rohit Sharma. With two double hundreds in successive home seasons since, Sharma has cemented his place—there is no pushing him away now.
So skipper M.S. Dhoni tried to slot Rahane in the middle order, giving him the No.4 position—Rahane is accustomed to batting in the middle order in Tests. However, he could only manage 703 runs in 21 matches (averaging 37) batting at that spot.
This is where the second reason becomes apparent. The Indian line-up in limited-overs cricket is flexible, and Dhoni likes to keep it that way. Beyond the two openers and Kohli at No.3, the skipper likes to play the options available to him according to the match situation.
This sometimes results in situations where Rahane is scheduled to bat at No.4 but is denied the chance since quick runs are needed, or a finishing touch is required. Rahane takes time to get set and only then brings out the attacking shots.
The mindset needed to bat at No.4 in ODIs—supporting the middle order and propping the lower order—is missing in his style of play. He is better suited in the top order—even Dhoni has accepted that it’s his best batting spot.
But the problem has been the unavailability of opening slots. He may be flexible in his strategies, but Dhoni is inflexible in team selection. So, when Dhawan returns to the Indian side (he is currently out injured), Rahane will invariably have to make way.
In 2014-15, when Dhawan was out injured, Rahane opened in England, and then against the West Indies and Sri Lanka at home. In 11 matches, he scored 435 runs (averaging 39.54), with two hundreds and a fifty, but it was still not good enough to outshine any other contenders for the job.
The ensuing uncertainty about his position was evident ahead of the Dharamsala game as well. “I am looking forward to this series, but I don’t know at what position I will bat,” he had said, despite Dhawan’s absence.
Rahane opened the innings in the first ODI—with yet another chance to cement his spot. He looked comfortable during his short 33-run stay.
But he needs to convert his Test form to this shorter format. With the series moving ahead to batsmen-friendly climes, it is up to Rahane to make it count.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.