Why Ajinkya Rahane is not quite at home at home
At 9:29AM on Friday morning — one minute before the scheduled start that was delayed by a wet outfield — a BCCI media release dropped in our inboxes and ended the debate on the make-up of the middle-order in the second Test. While the release also informed about injuries to Ishant Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja ruling them out of the Test against New Zealand in Mumbai, it was the final part of the release that prompted foremost attention.
“Ajinkya Rahane sustained a minor left hamstring strain while fielding on the final day of the 1st Test in Kanpur. Since he has not recovered completely, he has been ruled out of the 2nd Test in Mumbai. His progress will be closely monitored by the BCCI medical team,” the release said.
With skipper Virat Kohli returning to the hot seat after a mini-break, the days leading to the Wankhede Test was spent deliberating over which batter will make way. Shreyas Iyer’s impressive introduction in Kanpur – he became the first Indian batter to hit a century and half-century on debut – combined with the lean stretches of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane meant that the choice was not so straightforward. That was until the injury to Rahane of course.
As much as his paltry average of 19.57 in 12 Tests this year was meriting a tough call, it wouldn’t have been easy for India to drop their vice-captain especially at a venue that Rahane calls home. The 33-year-old, if available and selected, would have been playing his first Test in Mumbai in his 80th Test. As things stand now, though, it is possible Rahane might end his career without a Test at home.
If so, it will be an oddity in keeping with Rahane’s career as a whole. For someone who has grown up honing his skills on Indian pitches, nothing confounds about his eight-year Test journey as much as his middling home average. After 32 Tests at home, he averages 35.73 with just four tons and eight half-centuries. According to data from CricViz, no specialist Indian batter who has played a minimum of 20 Tests has averaged lower than Rahane at home in the last three decades.
If he is still aggregating just under 40 in his Test career, it is because of his noteworthy average of 41.46 from 47 away Tests. But with those away runs dwindling recently, he has been on an increasingly slippery slope. Since compiling a fine century as captain in a winning cause against Australia in Melbourne last year, Rahane’s dip has been particularly alarming. In 21 innings, he has crossed a score of 50 or more only twice.
With Kohli and Rohit Sharma resting for the Kanpur Test last week, the opportunity to get back among runs with an authoritative display was ripe. While Shreyas Iyer, a fellow Mumbaikar, clenched his fists and grasped it, Rahane squandered the chance with scores of 35 and 4.
Tentative against spin
Rahane’s first innings in Kanpur encapsulated a recurring theme in his Test career. Out of the 134 innings that he has batted across 79 Tests, 63 innings – which is just a little less than 50% –have been such where he has scored from 10 to 49 without kicking on. On a slow, docile pitch at Green Park last week, Rahane looked to have bedded in before a half-horizontal half-vertical slash at a ball outside off saw him chopping onto his stumps.
The more pressing and perplexing issue, of course, has been his fallibility to spin. At home, for instance, he averages 39.21 against pace but the number plummets to 28.34 against spin. Spinners have got him in 32 of his 46 dismissals. Off-spinners Nathan Lyon and Moeen Ali have enjoyed notable success, dismissing the right-hander three times each. A glance at his wagon wheel against spin at home suggests a liking for playing square of the wicket, with 68% of his runs coming in those areas and not too many in the V.
Two of the dismissals against spin arrived in his very first Test, against Australia in Delhi in 2013, when Lyon and Glenn Maxwell dislodged him for single-digit scores. It was perhaps a portentous sign of slight tentativeness against slower bowlers. And yet, it was at the same venue in 2015 that Rahane got twin hundreds on a typically sluggish surface, stepping out and lofting the South African spinners into the stands with ease.
It is possibly why former cricketers and experts don’t see any glaring technical glitches in his game against spin. Former India batter Pravin Amre, who has been Rahane’s mentor for many years, said that it is just a matter of time before the 33-year-old bounces back.
“In his career, he has gone through these phases so many times. He knows how to come back,” said Amre.
Current Mumbai coach Amol Muzumdar too said he isn’t worried about Rahane’s recent numbers. The only advice from Muzumdar for his former teammate though was pertinent.
“He was striking the ball well for Mumbai during the recent Syed Mushtaq Ali campaign. He just has to go out there and play his natural game. His natural game is to attack, having seen him since his debut 15 years back in domestic cricket for Mumbai. I don’t think he should curb that, which he does sometimes. If he plays instinctive cricket, I am sure he will be successful. I don’t see any technical problems,” said Muzumdar.
While Rahane’s career strike rate is just a shade under 50, the last 16 Tests have seen it dip to 41.9. It indicates that Rahane has tended to go into his shell at times. Some of his exemplary innings away from home in the 2014-15 stretch came when he was willing to play that natural game Muzumdar spoke of. It showed in an average of 48.59 and strike rate of 56.
SA tour crucial
If the South Africa tour does go ahead, Rahane will find himself in a familiar position to nearly four years ago. In January 2018, the vice-captain was dropped for the first two Tests of the series against South Africa after a wretched home series against Sri Lanka yielded 17 runs in five innings. He ended up returning for the third Test and scoring a crucial 48 in the second innings on a nasty, unpredictable surface in Johannesburg as India went on to post a consolation win. It underlined Rahane’s utility when the conditions are hostile and demanding.
Given the challenging surfaces India can expect in South Africa, Rahane’s chance is likely to come again. But if Rahane is to do away with the uncertainty incessantly swirling around his spot, he will have to do more than just step up in difficult conditions.