At 136/2 in the 28th over of the innings against South Africa at Melbourne on Sunday, Ajinkya Rahane walked out to bat. On the one hand, a platform for launching a final assault had been built. On the other, the situation was tricky: a couple of quick wickets and the advantage would slide away, the momentum would shift, and South Africa would be at India’s throat.
Rahane pushed the first ball he faced to get off the mark. He was soon playing a reverse sweep. He played a textbook perfect cover drive. He punched to the backward point fence. He lofted, coming inside the line of the ball, over cover and long off. He pulled with impunity in front of square. In the 39th over, he hit Mornie Morkel back over his head for a four. In the same over he despatched a perfectly good length ball to the cover boundary.
As Shikhar Dhawan faltered and flailed on nearing his hundred, Rahane kept the innings going, never once ceding advantage, never once letting the tempo flag. He outscored Dhawan in their partnership, making 69 of the 124 runs the duo put on. When he was finally out for 79 from 60 balls, his strike rate was 131.66, higher than that of Dhawan (93.83) and Kohli (76.66). India’s innings pretty much collapsed after his departure; without Rahane, it would have been in tatters much earlier.
This has always been Rahane’s way – and Rahane’s lot. He had made 18 first-class hundreds and more than 5,000 first-class runs before being handed his India debut.
But he remained the eternal bridesmaid, warming the bench on international tours as others were offered their opportunities.
Of all India’s young batsmen, Rahane has been the most consistent in the tough away tours since December 2013. He has played all but one of his 14 Tests outside Asia – against South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia. He has scored hundreds in New Zealand, England and Australia. He narrowly missed getting one in South Africa (he was out for 96). In his 13 Tests in demanding conditions against hostile bowling, Rahane has made more than a thousand runs.
In ODIs he has been less prolific, but that has been changing. His century in the ODI against England at Birmingham in 2014 was a sort of breakthrough moment. He has been making fifties, and it is a matter of time before the big innings start to come.
Like Kohli, Rahane is a quintessential modern cricketer. He thrives in every format of the game, being as much at home amid the frenetic pace of the Twenty20 as the prolonged intensity of the Test match. He is a sizzling fielder and an enthusiastic runner between wickets.
He does not showboat when he bats, pushing, flicking, tapping, glancing his way as he gets the measure of the opposition and the conditions. At the same time, he rarely lets a bad ball go unpunished, preferring to drive inside out against the spinners, unleash a ferocious pull against the short pitched ball and cover drive with majesty against the one pitched up. As he showed during the tours of England and Australia and on Sunday against Dale Steyn and Morkel, he is unafraid to take on the best bowlers and play the big shots.
How surprising that he has been so messed around with. An opener for Mumbai, he started his ODI career as an opener, was pushed down the order, was asked again to open when someone else was out of form or unfit. Against Pakistan in the World Cup, the game perfectly poised for him, he was asked to bat at Number 7. Had he not been, India could have done better than the 27/5 they scrapped together in the final five overs.
Quiet, undemonstrative, unflappable, Rahane has not the star power of Kohli, nor the swagger of Dhawan nor the style and prodigy status of Rohit Sharma. Amid the storm of young achievers in the current India side, he is the perfect calm. It is time we appreciated his worth much more.