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Ajinkya Rahane: Unlimited talent, limited opportunities

Ajinkya Rahane: Unlimited talent, limited opportunities

Ajinkya Rahane has a First-Class average of over 60 © Getty Images

Ajinkya Rahane, born on June 5, 1988, is probably one of the best players in the domestic circuit for India who hasn’t quite got enough chances to make his mark internationally. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the career of the Mumbai boy who turns 25 today.

At 25 years of age, with a First-Class average of 60.75 — which features in the all-time top 10 in the world — built over 102 innings and five seasons, including 19 hundreds and 22 half centuries, it’s a shame that Ajinkya Rahane has played just one Test match and 17 One-Day Internationals (ODIs).

A perennial bench warmer and drinks carrier ever since he was first picked in the India squad for the Test series against the West Indies in 2011, Rahane has seen many a compatriot barge through the doors of the national team, while he has been asked to wait outside. In fact, as many as seven players — Ravichandran Ashwin, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron, R Vinay Kumar, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ravindra Jadeja and Shikhar Dhawan — have debuted for India between then and the Delhi Test against Australia in March 2013 when Rahane finally got his chance.

Since then, two stalwarts of the middle-order — Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman — have retired, while two openers — Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir — have been sacked. Unfortunately, Rahane, who prides himself in being a versatile batsman who can play at any position, still continues to be overlooked. His Test debut was realised only after Shikhar Dhawan injured himself and was ruled out of the last match, and as fate would have it, Rahane could manage just eight runs over two innings batting at No 5.

Born and brought up in Mumbai’s Dombivli suburb, Rahane got immersed in cricket like any other boy in India — by playing on the streets. “I would disturb my neighbours and break their window panes. When dad heard about it, he got me admitted in an academy in Dombivli. That’s where my cricket career started off,” Rahane told ESPNcricinfo in an interview.

Rahane made his List A debut as an 18-year-old for Mumbai against Delhi in the Ranji one-day tournament, where he opened the batting. He scored 61 and shared a match-winning 171-run  partnership with Wasim Jaffer (170) as Mumbai easily chased down 298. He was soon to be picked in the India Under-19 squad and for India A. In September that same year, Rahane made his First-Class debut in the erstwhile Mohammad Nissar Trophy against Karachi Urban. had many first-choice players missing due to various reasons and Rahane made the most of his opportunity and scored 143 off 207 balls. He was among four centurions, along with Sahil Kukreja, Prashant Naik and Abhishek Nayar, as Mumbai posted 623 for six declared and won the match comfortably. He ended up scoring 487 runs in seven matches in his debut season. Soon, he scored 172 against the England Lions, which included bowlers of the likes of Monty Panesar, Graham Onions and Liam Plunkett.

In the next season, Rahane scored 1,089 runs, announcing himself on the scene for good. His 187 against Maharashtra at the Poona Club is the highest in the one-day format in the domestic competition. Asked what had changed, Rahane said, “My focus has increased in terms of doing well for Mumbai, so I try to apply myself more now and focus on being in the present and nothing else.” Rahane’s focus soon earned him his highest First-Class score of 265 not out against Hyderabad in December, 2009, before his captain declared the innings. Asked if he was disappointed on not being allowed to complete a triple century, Rahane told DNA, “A 300 doesn’t come your way every day. However, the priority was to make Hyderabad bat again and give our bowlers enough time to bowl them out. I completely stand by the team management’s decision to declare.”

In the 2009-10 and 2010-11 Ranji seasons, after being shifted to the No 3 slot in the batting line-up, Rahane scored three centuries each. In the summer of 2011, he was to make his ODI debut during India’s disastrous England tour after replacing Virender Sehwag. Even as India failed to win a single match, Rahane’s 158 runs in five matches was one of the bright spots in an otherwise murky picture. This included 40 and 54 in his first two games. In his Twenty20 International (T20I) debut that same series, he scored 61 off 39 balls, but India still lost. When England toured India later that year for an ODI series, Rahane scored a career-best 91 at Mohali and 42 at Eden Gardens as India returned the favour with a whitewash.

Despite his solid show, the Test debut remained elusive for Rahane. He was picked for the Australia tour of 2011-12 but warmed the bench the entire period. Yet, he chose to take the positives. In an interview with Rediff, Rahane said, “The Australian tour was a great learning experience for me despite not getting to play any Test matches. The selection is not in my hands and it depends on the team management, so I do not think about that. I used the tour as an opportunity to learn from senior players, like Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag among others, on how bat in foreign conditions. I think that will help me in future whenever I get a chance to play there.”

Rahane entered IPL 2012 with not many expectations from him, which was rather odd given his recent performances. He was never regarded the T20 type of player. He did not scoop, he did not slog and he did not reverse hit. But Rahane’s sound technique, temperament, and prolificacy in the ‘V’ — on Praveen Amre’s recommendation — and the cover regions got him 560 runs in the tournament for the Rajasthan Royals including an unbeaten hundred at 171.66 and a 98 at 148.48. His lofted drive over the covers, mostly on the backfoot, is one of his trademarks and one that has gotten him plenty of runs. Yet, all through 2012, the Test cap remained elusive.

Rahane continued to sporadically feature in ODIs and T20Is for India, but soon earned a reputation of being someone who could provide quick starts and score 30-40 runs up the order, but no more. This was probably what elongated his wait for donning the white flannels, and when his chance finally did come in March, 2013, it seemed as if it were a last ditch attempt.

As things stand, Rahane hasn’t been picked for the ICC Champions Trophy 2013. The selection of the squad was done during the IPL 2013, where Rahane started the tournament well and scored 488 runs, including four half centuries. Evidently, nothing seems to be enough.

(Jaideep Vaidya is a reporter, sub-editor and analyst at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and multiple sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)

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