Virat Kohli walks the tight-rope, Ajinkya Rahane is calm. Kohli is the ‘representation of New India’ but Rahane is still the guy who believes in old virtues. From the exterior, they are as different human beings as you will ever find but on the field, yet they both create a sublime synergy.
Six years ago, in the Boxing Day Test match, Kohli was at the other end when Rahane entered the ground. 49.5 Overs of the game already done and dusted and Kohli looked to be in some solid touch. All Rahane needed to do was to replicate the No.4 and close the gap with the hosts. And replicate he did. From that moment on, Rahane not only did what he was asked but then some more for a batting masterclass that lasted 260 minutes. A stand of 262 runs with Virat Kohli took an Australian win out of the equation.
MS Dhoni announced his retirement from the longest version of the game just after the Test, with the leadership mantle falling on Virat Kohli’s shoulders. For what Kohli had done just a couple of Tests ago, the captaincy was a natural progression but it was a statement for Rahane too. A part of the new leadership group, Rahane had arrived.
A batsman extraordinaire, who surprisingly could contribute more in tough overseas conditions than at home, the Indian team management could never thank their stars enough for this Khadoos cricketer whose eccentricity and calmness was the picture of a confident individual taking the bull by the horns. He was expected to be the perfect ally, not only as a No.5 but as a senior strategist. Remember he was not even two years into international cricket by then.
However, cricketers don’t operate in a Utopian world and a brickbat is as common to their existence as garlands are. And Rahane could hardly be spared from that tragic wheel once the runs stopped coming with the consistency it used to.
Melbourne 2020 though has given hope. Kohli has left. The team is without two of their premier pace bowlers, the very foundation of their overseas plans in the last three years. And they are playing a fourth-choice debutant along with two spinners for the first time in Australia, god knows in how many years. Rahane though was calm and didn’t let the adrenaline dictate the decisions.
Bringing Ravichandran Ashwin in the 11th over of the innings, despite the wicket having an 11mm grass cover on it, was a punt. But it was brave too. Ashwin has a great new-ball record in the subcontinent but Kohli never trusted him to do the job when the team goes to foreign lands. But Rahane is not Kohli, nor was he going to follow the mandate Kohli had in his six-year-long international career.
"Jinx is very quiet and confident and I must say he's a bowler's captain. Whenever we have played together and Virat has not been around on the field, he'd ask me 'What kind of field you want? When do you want to bowl? If you want to go on (bowling)? He's a bowler's captain. He's not someone who'd say 'do this or do that ... He is very clear about what he wants from his team," Ishant had told ESPN Cricinfo in the lead up to the Test. After Day 1, you would really understand what he was talking about.
The team hurdle ratifies the statement in no uncertain terms. Unlike the regular skipper, who is the motivator-in-chief in the hurdle, Rahane let Ashwin take over that part. It is common knowledge a player like Ashwin thrives when he’s entrusted with extra leadership responsibilities and it was a comfortable arrangement Rahane was happy to share. At the same time, he was constantly thinking of the game on his feet and his position in the field really helped the cause. Apart from that brief passage of play post-lunch, when Mohammed Siraj and Ravindra Jadeja first and Umesh Yadav, later, were wayward in their line and length, Rahane was spot on with his bowling changes, and allowing long spells was a part of the plan.
It showed in his attitude and body language that he was way more confident on the field than he had ever been in recent memory. He had the pressure of scoring runs later and the lack of it would further put up a microscope on his credentials but none of that had eclipsed that he was the man in charge and he can’t let any other extraneous factors impact the process. Judicial with the DRS, authoritative almost all the time while denying it, Rahane delivered.
"You can see what kind of person he is in his captaincy. He is very calm and composed. I can't say he does not have a sense of humor. He jokes around with us. Jinx (Rahane) spreads calm energy in a pressure situation. There won't be any tension, he'd communicate with the bowlers very well," Ishant had further added.
The same was backed by Jasprit Bumrah at the end of the day’s play when he revealed the bowlers were in full control of the passage and were effectively communicating with the captain who was ready to give him the field they wanted.
“There was a constant discussion going on between the bowlers and the other guys, with the captain. The wicket changed after the first session as well - the moisture went away, it got better to bat on. So we were adjusting the fields according to the lines we were trying to bowl. We were trying to communicate (to Rahane) what kind of lines we were trying to bowl, so he could set the field accordingly,” Bumrah said.
In totality, it was the freedom and calmness that defined Ajinkya Rahane’s first day as captain outside of the country. That too, leading the side just after the darkest day in the Indian cricketing history, his captaincy was commendable on many counts. For it told us that there was always ice to Kohli’s fire and brimstone and it lay just next to the man in the batting order. The next three-odd weeks will give a picture of how much India would benefit from that but they will not mind the start they got.