'As captain, you must back your gut feeling': Ajnkya Rahane
In a career-defining performance, Ajinkya Rahane slipped effortlessly into the big shoes of Virat Kohli, both at the No 4 batting spot and as captain, helping India script history in Australia by retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The performance of the Indian team will go down as one of the glorious tales of world cricket, with Rahane’s men being spoken about in the same breath as the great entertainers from the West Indies, Frank Worrell’s team of 1960-61. Like Worrell’s men, they took Australia by storm with their daring brand of cricket; playing with both grit and flair, playing both hard and fair.
The reserved and soft-spoken Rahane led the team aggressively and astutely: “It was a challenge as well as a responsibility, and I thought it was the best opportunity for me to stand up, send that message, he said.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
This is seen as India's greatest ever Test win. Has it sunk in?
It feels really good. It has just started to sink in that what we did in Australia was really special. I am really proud of each and every member of the team. It's not about any individual, it’s a team effort. Everyone played their part pretty well. Credit to every member of the team for this victory.
Can you share the emotions of the final day of the series?
On the first hour of the final day, we were thinking of playing normal cricket, not thinking about the total we had to chase; just play one session at a time and then assess again. We got a good partnership between Cheteshwar Pujara and Shubman Gill. When Shubman got out and I walked in, I thought I should carry on that momentum and play freely and if I can get 30-40 quick runs here, then we have a game on our hands, and (then) see what happens. I told Cheteshwar to continue to play his normal cricket, but I will look for runs. If I can carry on, if we have to chase 150-160 in the last session in 38 overs, it is quite chaseable. That’s what happened. That partnership between Pujara and Shubman set up the game. Then Pujara and Rishabh’s partnership and then Rishabh and Washington’s partnership.
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Initially, we were only looking to play one session at a time, but in the last session the message was clear (to go for the target), but play normal game, play normal cricketing shots.
Does leadership come naturally to you? A keen eye on field placements, rotating bowlers, identifying match situations…
I generally back my instincts; what I feel, what I think and how I read the situation. It is for people to say whether it comes naturally to me or not, but for me, I back my instincts and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But as a player, as a captain you have to back your gut feeling.
Also Read | Ashwin explains why he opted to compete against Steve Smith
The leg-side trap you put in effect so successfully against Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, was that instinctive or was it planned?
It started from the practice game. I was just thinking if we set this field, what will happen? (If we) attack the stumps and cut down their runs on the leg side and just look to build that pressure with dot balls, we will see what happens. That worked in the practice games; in small periods it really worked. Then once the Test matches started, we had our bowling meetings, then we discussed how we are going to go about it. That’s when we decided this is our plan as a team and we should back it.
From Melbourne it started to bear fruit, starting with Ravichandran Ashwin’s spell in the morning of the first day, that sort of set the pace.
Yeah, the reason to bring Ashwin (early at MCG) was there was moisture on the wicket and I thought it's the best chance to use Ashwin. I knew that after lunch, Ashwin’s role may not be that crucial, and he will come into play may be after tea. So, that was the best time to get Ashwin because I know he is a wicket-taker. Then he took those two wickets (Matthew Wade and Smith). Jasprit Bumrah bowled really well so that plan really worked.
India are now being seen as the team that stopped Steve Smith
It was the game plan which we had for him. Sydney was a different wicket. Brisbane was a different wicket, it had bounce. So, we had to alter our length, alter our plans and bowl accordingly. Especially Brisbane, credit to our bowlers because everyone was new: Washington Sundar and T Natarajan were making their debuts, while Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Siraj and Navdeep Saini, they had played four-five matches between them. I thought the way they bowled to their plans was really good. They were sure how they want to bowl.
What were your thoughts ahead of the Brisbane Test? No one gave India a chance because of Australia’s record there and the number of injuries in the team.
We were confident about playing good cricket. We were not worried about the result, we were not thinking about the outcome. That’s what we did. That’s how we came back into the series at Melbourne. Our thought was all about playing good cricket, showing good attitude, showing that character on the field. That helped us a lot. That’s what we decided: let’s play five days of good cricket and then whatever the result is we will accept it. Be strong, be together as a team and play as a team.
This time you had prior knowledge that you would lead in three of the four Tests. Can you tell us a little bit about your mental preparations for captainship, and the promotion to bat at no.4?
It started from the two practice games. I was thinking of how I can use certain players, the bowlers, and what type of field I can set for them. It was all about using them well and giving them the confidence. Identifying who is delivering in which situations, who is reacting differently in different situations. I was just observing that. When it came to Adelaide, Virat was the captain. So, I was taking a back seat. From Melbourne onwards, I knew what I had to do. I was clear in my head on what plans I had.
On batting at no.4, it was a challenge as well as a responsibility, and I thought it was the best opportunity for me to stand up, send that message and contribute for the team.
If we go back to first day of the series at Adelaide...first the mix-up with Kohli that led to his run out, then to lose your wicket quickly to the new ball, and then for the team to fold up for 36 in the second innings. How did you put all that behind?
was really blank when that run out happened. I knew we were both going really well, and if we had continued…they were on the back-foot. I felt bad. Once I went in, I told sorry to Virat and he was fine. He was like “it's ok, lets focus on how we could get better from here”. On the 36 all-out, everyone was disappointed. No one expected that. We had to move on, and not think too much about it. We only had 3-4 days for the next Test.
Then you scored a hundred in the next Test. How was that Melbourne hundred different from the others you have scored?
The situation was different, we were 1-0 down in the series. We were looking to come back. There was pressure. We were three down for 60; we needed to build a partnership. At that point of time, I was just looking to enjoy the moment. I wanted to feel that pressure, enjoy that pressure, and be in that zone. I wasn’t thinking of any personal achievements, or milestones. I just wanted to be there for the team, build partnerships, and take the team to a good position. In that process, the hundred happened. Now, when I sit back and think about it, I think that was the moment for us. We got the momentum, crucial runs on the board and eventually went on to win that Test match. It was special. My best ever, so far.
What brought out the best from Ashwin in Australia?
The way Ashwin bowled from Adelaide…I think he was relaxed, calm and confident. That’s why he could do his best. That’s why he could bat well too. We know he is a wicket-taker, a match winner for us and a great bowler. In this series he was calmer and more composed, which helped him.
Was it the freedom you gave him, why he responded so well to your leadership? Not just Ashwin, how the whole bowling unit responded…
It’s all Ashwin’s credit, man, it’s all his credit. I was only backing my players. I looked good because everyone did well. I looked good because of them.
In this series, the Indian batsmen played Nathan Lyon a lot better. How big a factor was that in the win?
It was a massive factor. We know his record, and how well he can bowl. So, we had some individual plans against him. The message was clear to everyone: to back one’s individual plans against each bowler.
Pujara was the other big factor, but not everyone understands his approach.
Pujara was determined. He was focussed. I feel people who understand Test cricket will not doubt his ability. We don’t doubt his ability. You need that kind of a player in your team, to play that sort of cricket. He wasn’t shy of getting hit, which is what was needed at that point of time (Brisbane Test). We all respect him. Credit to him, the way he batted…he wasn’t thinking about runs, but he was playing that situation really well. When you have someone batting like him at one end, others can play around him.
One of those who played around Pujara's anchor and changed the course of a match was Rishabh Pant. Tell us about his promotion to No5 at Sydney and then his Brisbane heroics.
We decided as a team management that if we move him up, we can get the left-right combination going. Australia would have to change their line and length. We wanted to move the game forward. That’s how we took that decision. Again, credit to him, no credit to us, that he played that knock, and got the runs. In Brisbane too, he played a fantastic knock, a match winning knock. He was under pressure, but the kind of cricket he played, the way he batted, was great.
You have seen ups and downs in your career. What keeps you going?
I always feel you should know to manage both success and failure. There should not be any fluctuations. My family support during a down time and Vedanta knowledge has helped me a lot in handling these situations. On, how to stay calm, humble, and be respectful. I have also always believed that whatever is happening around you is because you respect the game. Yes, even this victory came because of the respect I have for the game. It was truly special.
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