December 27, 2020. Boxing Day Test. Walking into bat with India precariously placed at 2/61, which quickly becomes 3/64, stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane plays a game transforming knock of 112. An innings of such great restraint and defiance that those who watched would remember it for a long, long time.
It was Rahane’s second Test hundred at the MCG, and if anything, better than the first he made at the venue back in 2014. Keeping in mind the attack and the situation he arrived in. Facing the likes of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood at their very best, only a week after they decimated the Indian batting line-up for 36 all out in Adelaide, he makes 112 out of a team score of 326.
India stretch their first-innings lead to 131 and eventually win the game by 8 wickets. Ajinkya Rahane’s knock led to India’s revival for the series.
Playing an innings of immense significance as captain and experienced middle-order bat, one would think, would also lead to a resurrection on the personal front for Rahane. That it would spur him on, put all his struggles behind, and he would now go on another high-scoring spree in his career. But here’s the thing: since that Test, Rahane has made only two 50+ scores and averaged 19.57 over 19 innings.
This is not the first such phase where Rahane has gone through a prolonged dip in his returns and shown worrying inconsistency over a long stretch of games and innings. In fact, this is one of many substandard phases that the batter has endured since the middle of 2017 – from when his form first truly started to dip in the Indian Test shirt.
Till the end of India’s 2017 tour of Sri Lanka, despite going through a couple of indifferent home series versus England and Australia, Rahane averaged a highly impressive 47.61 over 47 Tests for India, with 9 hundreds and 12 fifties.
One of India’s biggest positives from the difficult cycle of overseas tours, spanning December 2013 till January 2015, Ajinkya Rahane was almost going toe to toe with someone of the calibre of Virat Kohli in this phase and emerging as India’s second-best Test batter in the post Tendulkar-Dravid era.
But then the inconsistency crept into Ajinkya Rahane’s game. He made scores of 4, 0, 2, 1, 10 in a disastrous home series versus Sri Lanka in the 2017 winters, was dropped for the first two Tests of the tour of South Africa that followed. He hasn’t been same player since.
In this time frame, Rahane’s 38 Tests, 64 innings, have seen him average a measly 31.91 with only 15 scores of 50 or more. At home, the average for this phase stands at 32.26 and 31.75 away.
He looked painfully out of touch during the recent tour of England. A promising start in the first innings of the World Test Championship (WTC) final was followed by scores of 15, 5, 1, 61, 18, 10, 14 and 0.
But why then are India so firm in their backing of Ajinkya Rahane?
It’s a curious one, isn’t it? No Indian batter in the game’s recent history has gone such a lengthy phase without being dropped from the side. There could be a consideration for the fact that this has been a bowling era in Tests, with home attacks deeper than before and batting conditions arguably tougher than ever. That he is a vice-captain and perhaps plays crucial role in the decision-making within the leadership group could also be the reason.
In statistical terms, however, chances are high that this is down to the number of tough, impactful knocks that Ajinkya Rahane has managed to play even in this phase of his career. We started off with a pointer towards his Boxing Day Test epic. Only a month later, he scored a crucial first-innings half-century on a rank-turner in Chennai. In England, at Lord’s, his second-innings fifty was pivotal to India’s come-from-behind victory.
Before these three, if we go back in time to January 2018, Rahane’s second innings post comeback in South Africa was an instrumental 48 on a difficult pitch in Johannesburg. Their next overseas win came in Trent Bridge, where Rahane made a terrific 81. In Australia a few months later, his knock of 70 in the second innings at Adelaide was a forgotten gem. India eventually won that low-scoring thriller by just 31.
Ajinkya Rahane has played multiple such knocks. His career average in Test wins stands at 48 over 70 innings. Before he missed out in wins over England at Ahmedabad and at The Oval, it was 51.17 with 2,866 runs. In phase 2 of the elegant right-hander’s curious career, from September 2017, the average in wins for him is still a pretty healthy 46.09 with 3 hundreds and 10 half-centuries.
It is these runs that have kept Rahane’s place in Indian cricket intact. But these are the runs that also makes Rahane’s frustrating career all that more frustrating. If he can overcome all his struggles and produce innings of such value when the pressure is at its peak, the bowling is challenging, the conditions demanding, and his place in the side hung on a thin rope, why can’t he do it more regularly so that not only the Indian team is benefitting but also nobody is doubting his place in the side?