In January 2016, there was a head-scratching of different sorts. India had just suffered an ODI series loss to South Africa at home and despite batsmen putting in the hard-yards, bowlers downed them every time. When India arrived in Australia for a limited-overs series, the outcome was no different.
And that series also turned out to be the last series where Ajinkya Rahane had batted for India at the No.4 position and his last three innings at the position read 87, 89 and 50. But all that went in vain as Australia hardly had to break a sweat to seal the series and in the dead rubber game in Canberra, MS Dhoni promoted himself up in the order to bat at No.4 in an easy run chase and instead of guiding India to a good position, Dhoni further complicated the scenario by getting out for a duck. Wanting some quick runs India punned with Gurkeerat Singh and Ravindra Jadeja at three-drop and four-drop respectively which meant that Rahane had to bat as low as No.7 and pressure took over him as he could only add 2 runs to the tally. For reasons best known to Dhoni and Ravi Shastri – then team director – they dropped Rahane for the last ODI in Sydney where Manish Pandey scored a brilliant match-winning century and that one innings was sufficient for Rahane to go down the pecking order.
And that, in a nutshell, pretty much sums up the ODI career of Ajinkya Rahane. After donning ODI jersey in 85 games, he is yet to find a perfect spot for himself in the Indian team. Rahane batted at the No.4 position in the last World Cup Down Under, but once cricket made a comeback to the sub-continent, he was immediately singled out by his then skipper Dhoni, who in public, spoke about his inability to rotate strike efficiently in the latter stages of
However, with the game now moving to SENA countries, Virat Kohli went back to Rahane for the No.4 spot in Durban for his versatility of being able to bat at the top and in the middle in the pace-friendly climes of nations and how beautifully the gritty Mumbaikar responded to the call. With Rohit and Dhawan failing to take India to a comfortable position, Rahane rose to the occasion and anchored the run-chase with Kohli and made sure that India remained in the game throughout. His strike rotation was sublime and his communication with his skipper ensured that he didn’t lose a bit of his practice in the ODI cricket. And in the innings, he showed all the facets of what an ideal No.4 batsman should have as he held the mast for a strong 189-run stand and controlled the tempo of the game while Kohli went for big hits.
While the innings must have given Kohli a sigh of relief last night, some former cricketers had earlier voiced their opinions in the favour of Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina’s inclusion and some wanted young blood like Shreyas Iyer and Manish Pandey to be groomed at the position. However, it must be noted that while the former two are the now the pale shadow of their former selves, Pandey has not exactly been that effective in the limited amount of chances that he has got. Iyer, still below 25, is indeed a man for future, but banking on him for the World Cup might prove to be a risky option. On the other hand, Rahane, who has played 21 matches at the same position and averages 39.10, will be a more lethal option for sure given his familiarity with the upcoming conditions.
There have also been suggestions of promoting either Dhoni or Pandya up to the role. However, India will be short of a finisher if they decide to do so. With the absence of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the lower order, Dhoni and Pandya’s late role becomes all the more important and hence, despite MS’ good performance at No.4, India will not be able to do that. Just like the stars are aligning in the perfect direction, Rahane’s innings came at a time when India are not taking the innings and his tempo with a pinch of salt.
That the team management still has the confidence in him that he can offer a more important and permanent role in limited-overs format of the game ought to be Rahane’s big lifeline and it is also a testament to the team's trust in his abilities. Yet to reach 30, Rahane will want to believe that he has enough in him to resurrect his career. However, he also needs to keep in mind that he may not have too many opportunities to make his case given that there are many talented youngsters hammering down the door to find a way into the national team. And hence, this ODI series and the upcoming series against England assume extra significance for the talented Bombay boy. A good show with the bat will settle the debate once and for all while a mediocre show will push him further down the pecking order. It is a pretty straightforward equation and the onus is now on Rahane to win or lose it from here on.