By Gaurav Joshi
Every time, a cricketer is selected to bat in an unfamiliar role, he responds to the public in a slow nervous tone, “I am willing to bat anywhere for the sake of the team.” It is a sensible response because the cricketer himself is still untested in the role, so naturally he dishes out a response that is salutary to him and the team. But how often does that player excel in a role unfamiliar to him, especially a youngster?
Ajinkya Rahane has been a top-order batsman ever since he padded-up for his school as a 10-year old in the outer suburbs of Mumbai. At the peak of his domestic career in 2011, he attainted an average of 67. At that moment during an Emerging tour to Australia in June 2011, he was selected to play for India, but unfortunately for him, he played at a batting position that he was never accustomed to.
Firstly, he was selected for India in his least preferred format, Twenty20 Internationals (T20I) that too as an opener, he blossomed and then was sadly overlooked. Then he was tried out as an opener in the One-Day International (ODI) format. In his bid to develop his game in the shorter format, Rahane developed a range of shots, but during the process, he had lost his compactness that was the foundation of his initial game. Steve Finn bowled him through the gate in successive ODI matches and after that he only played in matches that were dead rubbers.
When the opportunity rose to play Test cricket, he had been picked as a middle-order batsman, a bewildering decision. Not surprisingly, he failed and lost his spot to Mumbai team mate, Rohit Sharma. The constant indecision by the team management had affected Rahane to an extent.
Now in South Africa for the Test series, he is likely to bat at No 6 slot. The only other batting position vacant is at No 4. A position that is a lot closer to Rahane’s preferred batting position of 3. But Virat Kohli is a front-runner mainly because he is seen as the successor to Sachin Tendulkar’s throne.
In South Africa, where the Kookaburra ball moves significantly in the first 20 – 25 overs, the strategy is to have nice soft-hands, leave as many as possible, play late and then let your middle-order cash- in. All of these aspects are ingrained in Rahane, having played his entire cricket at the top of the order. Furthermore, by slotting Rahane at 4, it allows India to almost have a luxury of having two players for the number 3 batting position. Rahane is also a fine back-foot player and is a very good player of the hook and the pull-shot. Importantly, he has the game in him to wear out the opposition.
Also keeping Kohli at No 5 batting position and Sharma at 6, allows India to have their best stroke-makers at those positions, where they can exploit on the hard-work done by the top-order. With the Kookaburra ball, it rarely moves of the seam after the 30th over and India are likely to do more damage with the older ball with Kohli and Sharma at the crease than a Rahane.
As we have learned from the past, Indian tail is not resilient on bouncy tracks. India needs a batsman at No 6 that can bat with the tail. Sharma had shown his ability to bat with the tail in the second Test and given the array of shots, he finds it easier to manipulate the strike. He has batted with the tail on many occurrences in domestic cricket and ODIs.
Rahane at No 4 also ensures the team composition in terms of experience has a perfect mix to it. Cheteshwar Pujara at three, Kohli at five and MS Dhoni at seven are the established cricketers and in between are the two most inexperienced batsmen, Rahane and Sharma.
The pitch and the conditions in Durban could well mean India playing Ravindra Jadeja in Kingsmead, meaning the Wanderers will be Rahane’s only chance on this tour. Let’s hope Duncan Fletcher and the Indian think-tank give Rahane a chance in a role he was born to excel in.
(Gaurav Joshi is an Indian-born Australian who played with Michael Clarke in his junior days. He coaches and reports for a Sydney radio station. Over the years he has freelanced for Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and is a regular on ABC cricket show Cow Corner. He is the author of the book “Teen Thunder Down Under” – The inside story of India’s 2012 U19 World Cup Triumph)
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