Ajinkya Rahane could be just the man we need: Sporting Life by Rudraneil Sengupta
By the time you read this, we may already have some inkling of an answer to the question I’m putting out here: Is Ajinkya Rahane a captain in his own right?
In this series, where he will lead India in a sustained manner for the first time in his career, an answer will emerge. The answer will not be rooted in the result; it is unlikely that India will win the series. In fact, it is likely that we will lose all three remaining Tests. The answer will lie in the fight that Rahane will offer.
The quiet, compact middle-order batsman usually melts into the background, quite unlike the team’s regular leader, yet he has been Virat Kohli’s deputy for a while. In the odd Test where he has had to step up — as in Dharamsala in 2017, when he took over from an injured Kohli — he has revealed himself to be a shrewd tactician.
Let’s not dismiss that. It’s an essential trait in a leader, something that’s often forgotten with larger-than-life captains like Kohli, whose very presence fills stadiums and whose every step signals to the wider world that he is the alpha in a wolf pack. The idea of leadership then merges with the idea of dominance.
Now, Rahane is not assertive. That is evident from the way he has been demoted from the captaincy of his IPL team, and then shunted around. Is he a pushover? A yes-man for Kohli? After all, strong leaders who want to mould their teams in their own image often prefer deputies who don’t offer resistance.
If that’s who he is, Rahane and his team will be rolled over by fired-up Australia playing in their own backyard, itching to go to war after their last demolition job.
But if, behind the impassive, soft-spoken exterior, there’s a man who doesn’t fear a good fight when it comes to him, Rahane may even approach this series with a sense of thrill. Because let’s face it, after the low of Adelaide — being bundled out for 36, India’s lowest Test innings score ever — the fear of failure is probably gone.
On the other hand, the challenges are arduous and varied. Rahane inherits a team without its talismanic batsman, Kohli, and without Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma — two of the three bowlers (alongside Jasprit Bumrah) who make the team’s bowling attack one of the best, if not the best, in the world.
Then there is the matter of overcoming the aftermath of the collapse. In a study titled When Suddenly Nothing Works Anymore Within a Team: Causes of Collective Sport Team Collapse, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in November 2018, researchers from universities in Australia and Germany zoomed in on a list of things they call a “temporal cascade of causes” that lead to things falling apart. That list includes a number of “antecedents” — poor preparation, increased pressure, lack of attentional focus, age / experience — that set up the failure. Rahane will need to address those.
They list factors such as “emotional contagion”, or the spread of a particular mood through a group. That’s another thing for the captain to address. “Insecurity” and “limited communication” within the group contribute too; again, it’s the captain who has to work those out.
One thing he can hold on to is the fact that collapses rarely recur. Before this disastrous Adelaide match, the last time every player in an innings was out for single-digit scores was when South Africa made 30 in their first innings against England in a Test in 1924. England gleefully enforced a follow-on. In their second innings, South Africa made 390.
Rahane, hopefully, will be the quiet force that leads from the back, allows others to shine and propels the team forward.