A lot is expected from Ajinkya Rahane whenever he walks in the middle but the calm-headed batsman has found it difficult to show consistency, a trait which is expected from a middle-order batsman, and a Test specialist who has played 77 Test matches in his 8-year-career in the longest format.
Ajinkya Rahane is sort of a batsman who gives you a feeling of calm whenever he walks in the middle. Like, he may not have scored a fifty in his last 10 innings but his aura will make you feel like he would bail the team out of a critical situation.
And he does stand on those expectations. We don't have to go very far to authenticate that, let's just go 8 months back and recall the Boxing Day Test match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in Australia. India 36 all-out in the first Test of the series in Adelaide, team's regular captain Virat Kohli travelling back home right after the 8-wicket defeat to attend the birth of his first child, premier pacer Mohammed Shami out of the series with a fractured arm and cricket pundits and experts just writing off India. NOTHING at all in favour of India.
Rahane takes over the baton, slams a hundred in the first innings as India beat Australia by eight wickets this time to level the 4-Test series 1-1. India later registered an iconic series win but names like Mohammed Siraj, Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, Hanuma Vihari, Shardul Thakur, Ravichandran Ashwin and T Natarajan took over.
Taking nothing away from Rahane, his calm presence and leadership helped but was the individual contribution enough? Scores of 27*, 22, 4, 37 and 24 followed after the 112 at MCG. Rahane received a heroes' welcome on his return to India but soon went out of the limelight with the arrival of Virat Kohli for the England home Test series.
The 33-year-old's performance pushed him back further. 112 runs at an average of 18.66 in 4 matches. If we take away the 67 which he scored in the first innings of the second Test in Chennai, the Mumbai batsman scored just 45 runs from the remaining 5 innings he played in the series.
However, India won the series 3-1 and the attention again shifted from the "good boy" of Indian cricket.
The actions have now shifted to England and a lot is expected from the seasoned middle-order batsman during the overseas matches. He averages 42.68 in away matches, while at home he has scored 36.47 runs per match. Eight of the 12 hundreds have come in away Tests. But also, eight of them came by the end of 2016 and only 4 after that! Rahane has averaged over 40 in only one calendar year after 2016.
Now, for someone like Virat Kohli, who is consistently poking the ball on the fourth and fifth stump and getting out in the process, numbers don't tell the exact scenario but he can't also deny the fact that numbers do not lie.
How has Rahane survived so far?
Some luck, some match-winning performances and also because of the lack of other options in the past.
India were touring South Africa in early 2018 and trailing 2-0 in a 3-Test series. Ajinkya Rahane was benched for the starting two Tests which India lost. He was brought back for the third and the right-hander grabbed the opportunity with both his hands. India conceded a 7-run first-innings lead on a Johannesburg wicket which was nothing short of heaven for the South African pace unit consisting of Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Lungi Ngidi and Andile Phehlukwayo.
In the second innings, Rahane showed tremendous grit, technique and class and scored a crucial 48 for his team. A 34-run stand for 5th wicket stand with Virat Kohli and then 55-run partnership with Bhuvneshwar Kumar for 7th wicket to help India post a 241-run target. India won by 63 runs.
Lack of other options
Now, during the 2018 England series, India were hammered 4-1. However, Rahane was the fourth-highest run-getter for India after Virat Kohli (593 in 5 matches), KL Rahul (299 in 5 matches) and Cheteshwar Pujara (278 in 4 matches). He scored 257 runs in five matches at an average of 25.70. Hanuma Vihari and Prithvi Shaw had just arrived on the cricket's biggest stage. Dinesh Karthik had failed on the tour. Rohit Sharma had earlier failed as a middle-order batsman in Test cricket. Someone like Shreyas Iyer was not in the reckoning.
Luck and lack of other options
In 2020, during the New Zealand tour, India faced a 2-0 whitewash at the hands of the Kiwis. Rahane again was the second-highest run-getter -- 91 runs in 2 matches, for India. Mayank Agarwal (102), Pujara (100) and Prithvi Shaw (98) were ahead of him. Captain Kohli himself could barely manage just 38 runs in 2 matches.
The numbers don't lie
Note: India won the remaining 12 bilateral series since the start of 2017 and with 1,159 runs, Rahane ended up as the fourth-highest run-scorer in the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) season. The vice-captain scored 49, the highest individual score from an Indian batsman in the WTC final versus New Zealand.
Since the start of England series in 2016, Rahane has averaged 33.77 in 48 Tests - which is roughly two-thirds of his career. No other Indian top or middle-order batsman in the last 31 years have averaged under 35 across a 48-Test stretch in his career.
Also, At the end of the Indore Test against NZ in Oct 2016 when Rahane hit his career-best of 188, his average was 51.37. Pujara averaged 49.22 and Kohli 45.56. After Leeds Test, Kohli's average read 51.14, Pujara's 45.59 and Rahane's 40.18 (the last two stats by Deepu Narayanan).
In the ongoing 5-match Test series against England, Rahane is averaging 19 after scoring 95 in three matches. Again, 61 out of it came from a single innings during the Lord's Test.
If at all he gets a chance to feature in the fourth Test at The Oval in London and if he ends up scoring a hundred or a match-winning fighting knock,' the same cycle will continue.
There have been calls to include Suryakumar Yadav and Hanuma Vihari in the eleven. Pujara has locked his place for another outing with an impressive 91 in Leeds. So, will Rahane make way for either of the two? Is it the end of the road for Rahane?