Ajinkya Rahane: Fire to perform is still burning strong

“I believe I have been an aggressive batsman. I am a reserved person, but that doesn’t mean I am not aggressive. I believe aggression should be on display with the bat, rather than body language,” says Ajinkya Rahane.

“It’s all about keeping your mind busy. The negative thoughts do creep in at times but I keep them at bay,” says Ajinkya Rahane.   -  Reuters

As a kid, he earned a black belt in karate. No wonder balance has been the feature of Ajinkya Rahane, on and off the field. As he sits down for a no-holds-barred interview, his balanced frame of mind is striking, be it while mentioning his dejection at being rejected for the ODIs or countering the strike-rate question. To add to that, since he strives for perfection, he spells out how he keeps negative thoughts away while dealing with rejection in white-ball cricket and a mediocre run in Tests. Read on…

How do you look at the journey so far and where do you see your career placed at the moment?

I still remember when I started, especially my international career. I started off in T20s initially. When I look back, I remember before that, I did really well in domestic cricket and for India A. It’s been an extremely satisfying journey but the fire to perform in all the formats is still burning strong. Still a long way to go for me. What’s important is I always want to give my best to the Indian team, whether it’s T20, ODI or Test, numbers don’t matter to me. It’s important to keep believing in myself, because I feel I still have a long way to go.

Do you get this feeling that Ajinkya Rahane always has to try and prove himself?

Ajinkya Rahane doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone. What the team feels matters the most, rather than what others feel. Having said that, I believe there are challenges in life and for me, it’s definitely been a challenging journey and I have learnt a lot. I have thoroughly enjoyed the five-six years of domestic cricket and almost eight years of international cricket. It has never been easy for me all the time. I remember I was a part of the squad for 18 Test matches before making my Test debut. Even making it to the Mumbai team wasn’t easy. Having played age-group and India Under-19, I had to prove myself in Times Shield before making my Ranji Trophy debut. Thanks to Indian Oil which gave me the opportunity to perform against quality opponents in one of the best tournaments in India — we all know the standard of Times Shield. Scoring heavily in Times Shield gave me an opportunity in List A and then I could get into Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy squad. So yeah, life is challenging. Sometimes, you think it’s not going easy for you but there’s someone up there or this sport wants you to do really well; that’s why you see through all these challenging times. That’s how I see it and believe it.

Do you think it’s time you express yourself more aggressively?

I believe I have been an aggressive batsman. I am a reserved person, but that doesn’t mean I am not aggressive. I believe aggression should be on display with the bat, rather than body language. I don’t like to talk too much, I prefer to let my bat speak but sometimes it’s important to speak the truth. Throughout these eight years of international cricket, I thought whatever opportunity I got, I have done really well, especially in ODIs. Even in the recent past, in the matches that I have played against the West Indies and Australia, I have done really well. I had to wait for long to get a look in, and that’s fine, but whatever opportunity I got, be it West Indies, Australia, South Africa, I thought I have done really well. I have always believed and said that the team comes first and I have respected the team management and the selectors’ decision and I will continue to do that. But in the end, it is important that your performance is recognised as well. As a player, I feel everyone needs those consistent chances to actually do well for Team India and I feel I am also on the right track and need consistent chances.

Do you feel let down sometimes that you haven’t got that consistent run?

If I feel let down, my mindset will turn negative, so I don’t really think that way. I leave that decision to the selectors because they are the best judges, but I also believe that my performances were really good. If you see the last three-four series, my average was around 45 to 50. Yes, after that I was dropped and I went back to domestic cricket. I played Vijay Hazare Trophy, Deodhar Trophy and India A as well as against England Lions and I feel I did reasonably well. I don’t think about being let down because I want to remain positive and not get into a negative zone.

It’s easy to say that but how do you manage to balance it? It’s human tendency to keep thinking about it...

It’s all about keeping your mind busy. Yes, it’s not easy at all, as you said. The negative thoughts do creep in at times but to keep them at bay, I preferred to keep myself busy. I went back and played domestic cricket, be it List A or any other format and I kept on scoring runs. That was my whole intention, to keep playing cricket, to keep playing games, to keep practising and remain positive.

Besides, the Vedanta Academy philosophy has also helped me retain my composure. I was introduced to it through Mr. Prayag Raj, a disciple of Swamy Parthasarathy who has founded the academy. I am still learning the Vedanta philosophy, but the mere introduction to it helps me to be cheerful, whatever be the situation. Yes, it’s a human tendency to keep thinking, but in my discussions with Prayag Raj sir, he has always taught me to try and control the mind and serve the team.

Do you think your strike rate goes against you when it comes to being considered for the middle order in ODIs?

You know I don’t like to talk about my numbers, but I shall cite only two instances. World Cup 2015 versus South Africa (79 off 60 balls, S/R 131) and the ODI at Wankhede versus South Africa (87 off 58, in October 2015). Both can’t be flukes! I have always been flexible for the team cause and serve the country with a smiling demeanour. Besides, I hope people understand that cricket is also about what situations a batsman is encountering. It’s not always about strike rate.

Do you think the uncertainty with the white ball has unsettled your performance in Test cricket?

No. Whether it is white- or red-ball cricket, what matters is how the bat makes contact with the ball. Yes, the formats are different but the game remains the same. It’s all in the mind. Frankly, I have never thought about my personal or own achievements. Why I am saying this is because I opened against West Indies and Australia, I did really well but in South Africa, the management thought I would be more suitable at No. 4. So I said ‘whatever you prefer’ because the team wanted it and the team comes first. That’s the challenge as a batsman and as an international cricketer. You should be ready for any challenge thrown at you and you should grab the opportunity. But uncertainty…. I don’t know… not uncertainty, but every individual needs confidence and positive vibes like “yes, you are there and you are doing it for the team”. I think everyone knows that if someone is backing you, the player gets the confidence to play fearless and positive cricket.

Being a fairly senior member in the team, do you see it’s time to put your foot down and demand something, like batting position, for instance?

See, I have always thought the country and the team comes first. Even when I played for Mumbai before making my India debut, I started off an as opener but when the team wanted me to bat at No. 3 for the team cause, I agreed and accepted the challenge. I thought that if something works for the team, it automatically works for you as an individual as well, so I have always preferred to look at the larger picture. I have always put the country and team ahead rather than thinking of how many runs have I scored or how many runs do I need to get in a series. Giving it all while playing for the country is how you can contribute, so I don’t think I will ever ask for anything except the team cause. But that’s what my point is, if as a player I have always played for the team, then I at least deserve chances consistently.

It’s been almost a year since you have played an ODI. Chief selector M. S. K. Prasad recently said you are still a part of the World Cup plans. What are the signals you are getting?

When he said it to the Press, it feels good that I am being considered. But at the same time, you need to get a chance. Playing the World Cup is a dream every cricketer cherishes. I do respect the selectors and the team management and I think I deserve a chance.

Are you still hopeful or is time running out?

I am very much hopeful. Like I said, I keep negative thoughts away and you never know, things can change any time. It’s important to believe in yourself and keep good people around you rather than those who will say yaar, yeh tere saath hi kyon ho raha hai (why is this happening with you, pal)”. I keep my distance from such people and be comfortable with a closed group of four-five people who have believed in me all along.

So you’re confident that the ODI scenario is not hampering your performance in Test cricket?

Definitely not. See, everyone goes through such phases, for 18 to 24 months. Even the greats like Sachin  paaji, Dada (Sourav Ganguly), Laxman paaji, Rahul (Dravid) bhai — all of them have gone through such phases but it matters more how you recover from it. The team management has backed me a lot in Tests, their positive vibes have rubbed off on me and it reflected in the kind of innings I played in South Africa. Even in Adelaide, the second innings was crucial.

In that respect, would these six months’ break from red-ball cricket help you end the 28-innings spell without a hundred in West Indies?

For the time being, the focus would be on white-ball, starting with domestic T20s, followed by the IPL and the World Cup, so I doubt if I can get time to prepare for red-ball cricket. It’s important to stay in the present, so for the time being I am focused on performing in limited overs matches. Obviously, like you said, it’s been a long time since I have had a real big one in Test cricket but I do feel it’s just a matter of time to break it. That’s a challenge for me — yes, I haven’t scored a hundred in 28 innings but that’s in the past — I would try to convert it into my strength. But for the time being, it’s time to focus on white-ball cricket.

“Our captain (Virat Kohli), is an unselfish person and that reflects on the team. If you see, in South Africa and Australia, we enjoyed each other’s successes in Tests, so there’s absolutely no insecurity in the Indian dressing room,” Rahane says.   -  AP

 

How much time does it take for a transition between formats?

You need at least three to four quality net sessions to make those adjustments. The batting style doesn’t really change but the mindset changes. I have also observed that when you move from T20s to Tests, minor technical adjustments have to be made. For instance, Test cricket is all about top-hand cricket, whereas T20 is more of using the bottom hand a lot. So you need at least three to four days to get used to the change in terms of hand-eye coordination and leaving or not leaving the ball outside off-stump.

How challenging is the IPL going to be in that regard, considering you will not only be leading the team but also eyeing a place in the World Cup squad?

The IPL would be a platform where I believe I can consistently open for Rajasthan Royals, help them win games and stake a claim for a place in the World Cup team.

There’s a perception that insecurity is on the rise among individuals across formats in India’s dressing room. Your take?

Insecurity arises out of selfishness. I believe anybody who is not selfish will not have any insecurity. Our captain is an unselfish person and that reflects on the team. If you see, in South Africa and Australia, we enjoyed each other’s successes in Tests, so there’s absolutely no insecurity.

What are the biggest challenges for a professional cricketer currently?

Firstly, you have to keep yourself fit. Whether you play international cricket or not, the volume of cricket that you play, it’s paramount to keep yourself fit. To back it, you have to be extremely careful about the diet. You have to develop these good habits off the field. Everyone tends to work on the field with regard to skill-sets but you have to back it off the field as well. At times, you have to resist the temptation to have sweets or desserts but you have to make those sacrifices if you have to excel as a professional cricketer. Besides, you also need to focus on rehab, recovery and mobility training, besides working out in the gym.

Young cricketers tend to lean more towards T20 than taking the long route to success. How do you think they can be made more aware about the importance of the format? Or do you think it’s time the old-timers adapt to the change?

Definitely IPL has given recognition, stability and a huge platform to a lot of cricketers, especially domestic cricketers, but we shouldn’t forget the roots of cricket. I think Test cricket is the ultimate. There’s no other format like it. It’s extremely challenging to get up early in the morning and follow the same routine and keep focusing for five days in succession.

It toughens you as a cricketer and a person. T20 may give you instant success — you may end up being a star overnight — but when you grind day in and day out in Test cricket for months and years, that’s the real deal.

But I do understand that the T20 format has made a lot of youngsters aware about the shortcuts, but they shouldn’t forget that the route to be a complete cricketer is chasing the four-day or five-day formats.

Do you think the youngsters think that way, now that you have spent some time on the domestic circuit this year?

I can speak for the Mumbai players, since I have been a part of the Vijay Hazare and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy campaigns, despite missing the Ranji Trophy. I can feel the hurt among the boys that Mumbai couldn’t do well this Ranji season and that gives an impression that even the youngsters in Mumbai do care for the longest format. Yes, T20 lingers in the back of their mind but they do prioritise four-day cricket, which is heartening to see.