Melding into the middle-order

Ajinkya Rahane has a sense of balance, both as a batsman and as an individual, and in Pravin Amre, his coach back home, he has the ideal guide. India can breathe easy, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

There was a moment in the Lord’s Test that defined Ajinkya Rahane’s cricketing personality. And it had nothing to do with his batting. Or perhaps it did.

England’s Gary Ballance guided one towards third-man and instantly Rahane and Virat Kohli set off in hot pursuit. As the ball neared the ropes, Kohli knew it was a lost cause and slowed down, but Rahane would have none of it. He ran full-tilt, made an attempt to prevent the four and almost collided with the photographers across the boards. A concerned Kohli was seen asking him: ‘What was the need to do that?’ Rahane sheepishly smiled and the two jogged back to their positions.

It showed the never-say-die trait that resides deep inside the young batsman’s frame. Obviously the same thread, that refuses to see the finishline, helps him bat well too despite the sight of the lower-order at the other end.

Rahane, the opener, due to paucity of space up the Indian batting tree, is now comfortable being a middle-order batsman, who can also encourage the tail. It is a role he is currently doing with aplomb while it is still early days to compare him with his eminent predecessor in that role — V. V. S. Laxman. Yet, the two men share a similarity — a disarming simplicity.

After his lovely 103 in the second Test at Lord’s, if you expected an ‘I, me, myself’ press conference from him, the mistake is all yours because so far in his nascent Test career including the one at Lord’s (7 matches, 543 runs, 2 hundreds), humility off the field and steel on it, have been his two skins. Talking to the media, Rahane thanked the top-order for making him believe that the conditions could be countered. Mind you, we are speaking about a Lord’s pitch that many former England captains termed as the ‘greenest one’ they had ever seen.

Rahane walked in with India being tentatively placed at 86 for three and soon it became 113 for four following Cheteshwar Pujara’s dismissal. It was India’s first tipping point and the Mumbaikar ensured that the visitors were still standing at close on the first day despite men below him, faltering, while Bhuvneshwar Kumar lent him support. The two added 90 runs for the eighth wicket and M. S. Dhoni’s men were back in the game. “Bhuvi is batting beautifully and I have full faith in him,” Rahane said. Asked about his own batting, he replied: “I wanted to get those first 20 to 30 runs and then I took my chances.”

It has been a feature of Rahane’s batting — the sedate start and the sudden flurry of fours and before the rival captain can fathom the situation, India’s latest hero is inches away from his 100. Hailing from the Mumbai school of batsmanship, Rahane has married solidity to flair. He stood his ground at Lord’s and also hoisted a straight six off James Anderson that showed he was the boss. But bump into him at a Costa Coffee shop, where he is having a cuppa along with R. Ashwin, and you see a shy individual, who prefers to reveal his aggression only on the 22 yards.

For a team that still has the hangover about the big five — Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Laxman — Rahane and the fellow-members of a young line-up, have offered enough antidotes over the last eight months. Critically, all this has happened overseas and India can take heart.

Yes, the two big wickets for opposition attacks still centre on Pujara and Kohli but in their own effective ways — Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and Rahane — have showed that there is a collective air of resistance within the team. Dhawan may not have set the Thames on fire but as Dravid said on air, we are talking about a batsman, who just two Tests back, had scored a hundred in New Zealand.

In South Africa, New Zealand and now in England, Indian batsmen have shown gumption. It will only add confidence to their fine skill-sets. Among them, Rahane’s maturity in quickly analysing situations and the unflurried manner in which he shepherds the tail as well as keeps the scoreboard ticking over, has to be admired.

The 26-year-old has a stupendous first-class record (70 games, 6252 runs, 59.54 average, 21 hundreds) but it is the bane of Indian batsmen that despite their exploits in the Ranji Trophy or even Tests at home, the words ‘flat track bully’ get bandied around. Collectively, India’s top-five have shown that it’s a label that doesn’t suit them as each of them now has at least one hundred on foreign shores and that too against men like Dale Steyn and James Anderson.

It is to Rahane’s credit that he has muscled his way into this group as originally, the talented Rohit Sharma was pencilled in at five. However, Dhoni’s gambit of having five bowlers at Trent Bridge and Lord’s, meant that one batsman had to be axed and Rohit was dropped. A few months back that would have been unimaginable and for all practical purposes, Rahane would have been carrying drinks.

But at Durban (96), Wellington (118) and finally at Lord’s, Rahane has shown that in the crunch, he is a better batsman and his retention at Rohit’s expense is another proof of his rising stature.

He has all the shots, can defend astutely and if there is a weakness, it is that at times he tends to get into a run-making flow even before he has settled down. It cost him his wicket during his debut Test against Australia in Delhi in 2013 and questions were raised about his temperament. Thankfully for India, he has shown that it was an aberration and men like Dravid have supported him.

Rahane can look back into Mumbai’s cricketing history too and imbibe a few points while choosing the road ahead. For every Sunil Gavaskar, Tendulkar and Dilip Vengsarkar, there have also been the counters in Sanjay Manjrekar, who became a prisoner of his technique, and Vinod Kambli, who lost his way to a flashy lifestyle.

Luckily, Rahane seems to have a sense of balance and in Pravin Amre, his coach back home, he has the ideal guide. India can breathe easy.