‘My best yet to come’

"The way I have improved as a batsman and cricketer, it says that the process I have adhered to is good," says Ajinkya Rahane.

Ajinkya Rahane... cricket is a team game. So, as a player, I have to think about the team and then about my personal aims.   -  SHASHI ASHIWAL

Ajinkya Rahane celebrates his maiden Test century, against New Zealand, in Wellington in February 2014.   -  AP

The Mumbai cricketing fraternity is happy that Ajinkya Rahane has lived up to the promise and potential he had demonstrated as a young batsman. While Rohit Sharma’s form has been erratic, Rahane, a typical Mumbai product raised on turf wickets and put through the wringer of club tournaments, has shown consistency. Recently, Rahul Dravid paid accolades to him, saying he has probably been the best Indian batsman in the last two years because he scored centuries in New Zealand, England, Australia and Sri Lanka, and very nearly reached the three-figure mark in South Africa and Bangladesh.

Talking to Sportstar recently, Rahane said: “I will always remember my debut Test against Australia at the Kotla; we won that match, and the series. And also the 17-Test run overseas that has been very special. I believe my best times are yet to come.”

Excerpts:

Question: It’s been a natural progression for you, starting with tremendous success for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy and then living up to expectations for India across all formats in the last 18 months or so. Would you say it’s been satisfying?

Answer: Actually, I never get satisfied. But the way I have improved as a batsman and cricketer, it says that the process I have adhered to is good. The hunger to prepare, improve and succeed well before every tour has never diminished and will never in the future. I am happy with the way I have played so far in the last two years, but from here on, it’s important to move ahead and sustain the process and discipline. These two factors will be the key to going forward.

You have scored four Test centuries (Basin Reserve, Lord’s, Melbourne and Sara Oval) and missed two at Kingsmead (South Africa) and Fatullah (Bangladesh). Very few have had such an excellent run…

Yes, I have scored all four centuries in 17 overseas Tests and all of them were special moments for me. But scoring a century in India and abroad is equally important. I have played just one Test at home and so I am looking forward to the home series against South Africa. But, yes, it’s been very pleasing to get four centuries in four different countries.

Would you say you have been somewhat lucky to have a long run of 17 Test matches abroad after your debut against Australia at the Kotla in March 2013?

As a matter of fact, I did not know when I would make my debut. I was anxious when I made my debut in Delhi. I got out quickly and I realised then that there was a challenge before me. I was very determined to take up the challenge playing outside India. All four tours, to South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia, were challenging. I wanted to come out of my comfort zone, do well and this gave me much happiness. But I also told myself that I should not be thinking about results or set personal goals. I told myself that I would prepare well, give my best shot on the field, hoping that results will fall in place automatically.

The 47 you scored in your first Test innings abroad, at the Wanderers, must have given you some confidence…

That particular innings gave me not only the confidence that I can play international cricket but also sustain it and work to dominate at the highest level. The ball was slightly old when I went in to bat and I took some time to get in. Then they took the new ball and Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander came in. I decided to back myself and follow my instincts after playing out a few overs. A drive off Steyn on the rise gave me confidence.

Your four centuries — just take us through each one of them. Basin Reserve, Lord’s and MCG, must have posed a lot of questions?

I did not make many runs in Auckland, but I got the feeling that I was batting well and timing the ball well. We were 165 for five when I went in to bat at Basin Reserve. Since I was playing well, it was also important to dominate the opponent. You cannot defend and leave the ball all the time. When I got into the 20s, skipper (M. S. Dhoni) told me to back myself and play my shots. We were thinking in terms of winning the Test, and this cannot happen without scoring quick runs and bringing the home team under pressure. When I was in the 90s, Zaheer Khan felt that I was becoming anxious and advised me to play the ball on its merit. I actually hit a boundary when I was on 99; I was relieved that I had scored my first Test century. I had heard about Wellington being breezy and windy, but the velocity of the wind was not intense when I was batting. I had heard that sometimes it becomes difficult to stand steady. I felt so when I was in the 70s, but not to the extent of getting unsettled.

The Lord’s century…

It was special because India won the Test there. There was a team dinner the previous evening at the Indian High Commissioner’s place and almost everyone told me the significance of a Lord’s century. Even the room service staff at the team hotel kept reminding me how special it would be were I to get a hundred at Lord’s. So the thought of a ‘Lord’s hundred’ did not leave me right through the night. It was in the sub-conscious state of my mind. While travelling by bus to the ground I told myself that I would just play each ball on its merit, whatever the situation. It’s easy to say that, but it’s difficult to execute such a plan. We were 145 for seven or so at tea, and just as I had felt at Basin Reserve, I told myself that I should try to dominate the England bowling. I wanted to see their body language if I launched an attack. I also told Bhuvi that I am going to play cricketing shots, take calculated risks and that he has to support me. I thought that 300 or 325 plus will be a winning total. There was risk to be taken, but I had to do that and dominate the England bowling. We ended up scoring 160 runs in that session and that changed the momentum in our favour.

What makes the century at MCG so special?

Actually, I was playing well in the Adelaide and Brisbane Tests too. I got out on 62 in Adelaide and 81 in Brisbane. When we went to practise in Melbourne, I got a different feeling altogether. It was like getting a positive vibe and the mind immediately recognised it. When Murali Vijay and Virat Kohli were batting, I was in the dressing room and actually visualising the way I would dominate the Australian bowling. I was not thinking about leaving the ball or about bouncers. If a team won in Australia, it was because its batsmen dominated the home team’s bowling. So, when I went to bat, I took nearly 20 minutes to settle down and then told Virat that I would like to play my shots. I told him I was batting well, would like to dominate and take the pressure off him. Virat told me to go after the Aussie bowlers. This communication between me and Virat turned out to be important. I think I was scoring at a run a ball then. When I was into my 90s, I was blank, not at all thinking about the century. I told Virat that I will hit a four and reach my century. That’s what happened when I was on 97. The positive vibe rubbed off on me right from the practice session in Melbourne and, as I said, the communication with Virat cleared my mind.

And the one at Sara Oval?

The wicket at Sara Oval was slightly similar to the one at Lord’s, but the latter had more bounce. I had made a century in the practice game in Sri Lanka. We had a two-day practice session before the second Test and I was told that I would bat at No. 3 after the first practice session. But it’s not about the batting order though; it’s about making the mental adjustment. It’s about how quickly you adapt and when you tell your mind to adjust. That’s important. I got out early in the first innings. So, myself and coach Sanjay Bangar went to the ground at 7.30 in the morning for two days; on the second and third day, I wanted to face the new shining ball because at No. 5 you don’t face the new ball too often. But at No. 3, a batsman, most of the time, has to face the new ball. I told him (Bangar) that I would like to practise in the morning during the Test match. I faced the new ball for 45 minutes — all throw-downs from him (Bangar). He was doing with his side arm. I did this for two days and felt comfortable. I felt happy facing throw-downs from Bangar and told him so. When I went to bat in the second innings, the ball was slightly seaming. I took my time to settle down. I think I was batting on 28 — scored off 84 balls — at close on the third day. But the next morning I knew I had to play positive cricket by being a little more aggressive. I played cautiously in the first half hour. They started with spin and I thought defence would be the key to success. I defended well and then began to play the shots. I also decide to play a long innings and that reflects in the 243-ball 126.

Are you disappointed with not getting a century at Kingsmead and Fatullah?

I still think about the 96 (Kingsmead) and 98 (Fatullah). At Kingsmead, I was thinking about my first Test century in my second Test overseas. Against Bangladesh, the aim was to score quickly because of rain interference. It was a one-off Test and we were looking to win it. Kingsmead taught me a lesson as to how those four runs were important, but the 98 was special for me because we were trying to dominate.

So which has been your best series so far?

All the four overseas tours (South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia) were good for me, but I think I would pick Sri Lanka (the fifth tour) because we won a Test series there after 22 years and also the Lord’s Test because we won there. I will also choose the Australia tour and the Sydney innings of 38 not out that saved the Test match.

Sachin Tendulkar must have called you after your century at Lord’s?

He called me after the Lord’s innings; I think he was in London then. He called from the airport and told me that he saw my innings. He liked the way I dominated the England bowling and that my knock would probably help India win the Test match. His call and words are good enough to motivate me.

Where would you prefer to bat — at No. 3, 4 or 5?

Cricket is a team game. So, as a player, I have to think about the team and then about my personal aims. I have imbibed the virtue — that the team comes first at all times — from a lot of senior players. So, maybe it’s too early in my career for me to nominate a position in the batting order. My position will be dictated by the team management, and I get the feeling that the management believes that I can bat at any number and take the team through any situation. Batting out of my comfort zone gives me much happiness, but it’s a challenge.

How has Praveen Amre shaped your career? You always consult him?

Praveen sir knows me from my under-19 days. He was the coach of the Mumbai team for a long time, and the coach of the West Zone team too. So, we have known each other for eight years. He knows my game. He has seen my growth step by step. He has asked me to make minor adjustments. When I am in Mumbai, I work with him. We have a good understanding. He has given me small tips that have helped me. So, he has a big hand in my development and success as a batsman and cricketer. I call him up after scoring runs, and also after getting out cheaply. The frank opinion he has about me is very good.