Zen is a Japanese school of Mahayana sect of Buddhism, which lays emphasis on the value of intuition rather than study of scriptures. There’s usually something like a cricket version of the concept in Ajinkya Rahane’s batting approach at his best. Up until few years ago he seemed like he understood how to approach deliveries instinctively at the crease without need for conscious reasoning, say focusing too much on his technique. He had the perfect mixture of attacking intent and solidity in defense. Whenever he got a big one it looked as if it was effortless, even a touch meditative.
Be it playing hooks off pacers clocking 150, or tonking quality spinners over the in-field, Rahane looked in control. An aggressive shot would soon be followed by a dead batted block as if he had just walked in. Pro-activity followed by reactivity, trying to mess with the bowlers radar but still up to defend when they land it bang on target. If we look back at his golden run in the SENA countries from the end of 2013 to 2015, we can get a sense of this quality.
Of course, in places like these four, there is more help for the pacers therefore a need for more defensive batting — leaving balls and using soft hands. But what stood out in those tough tours was the Indian test vice-captain’s ability to turn the pressure on the bowlers when offered the slightest of chances. This is mirrored in his strike rates from his first tours to South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia.
He scored 1069 runs at an average of 48.59 with a solid, even impressive strike rate of 56.84% combined. It has to be mentioned that in Australia and New Zealand Rahane struck at over 60. The Yin-Yang symbol is typically defined as a sign of harmony between two opposites. In this case it’s the balance between attack and defense that worked so well for the batsman. This exact aspect is the one that is not coming together in recent times for the batsman.
Last year, statistically the worst for Rahane, this issue was evident. He had a strike rate of 44.05 in 2018 with an average barely above 30. Yes, strike rate might not be a fair indicator in Tests but for a positive batsman like him, it does give a little insight. He had a prolific home season in 2016 but in the latter parts he found himself getting out to pull shots against spinners. That probably ended up as the trigger for his poor run of form.
2017 were early signs of him withdrawing into his shell, lesser and lesser positive stroke play. As the stroke play kept reducing, poor results started to follow. That resulted in the horror year of 2018 for Ajinkya Rahane. The pull shots nowhere to be seen, the jumping down the crease reduced, he found himself in troubled waters. This was also the year where he made adjustments to try and make it to the Indian ODI team as No.4.
Now we go back to Rahane’s zen. It was disturbed in Test cricket. He looked very conscious about his technique, and that meant he wasn’t relying much on intuition. Ironically, trying to change his technique for ODIs made his test batting slower. Yin, sometimes known as the slower half of the Yin-Yang, seemed to dominate the Mumbaikar’s batting. Of course, he bounced back in the West Indies, but still the harmony wasn’t quite there in his batting.
In the 1st innings of the first test match of the ongoing South Africa series at home, Rahane seemed to be in his shell once again. But batting for declaration in the 2nd innings, we saw the best of Rahane, this was dominated by Yang, the intense side of the Yin-Yang. A lovely pull shot, an extremely difficult down-the-track inside out six from the rough, paddles, reverse sweeps in all of just 17 balls. But batting in a different situation in the 2nd test he scored a gritty 59 off 168 balls.
Although the circumstances warranted risk free, dogged batsmanship, the rotation of strike wasn’t up to the mark. There was no venturing outside the crease, which meant he couldn’t get to the pitch and knock the ball around for singles. The most noticeable thing was Rahane avoiding the pull shot especially against spin. There were quite a few short of a length balls on the stumps, which he generally pulls to the boundary. But he tried to play each one of them in front of square on the off-side.
He shelved the shot that triggered his horror run, that showed determination. But at the same time, he missed out on quite a few runs, something he needs as much as possible to get back into groove. Ajinkya Rahane can still go back to his best, he just needs to find his Yin-Yang, balance between attack and defense, between light and shadow.