Why the WTC finals will be crucial or decisive for Ajinka Rahane

This trait of mumbling severely interrupted his career several times. When Kohli, in his early years as captain, injected insecurity as a performance-enhancing drug, often shuffling players around for horsepower theory, in an attempt to send a message, or simply trying to sneak the team forward his way, Rahane was one of the worst sufferers.

Not many could understand why he was put down in South Africa during the 2018 series; and not many understood how it affected him. He mumbled, he shrugged, but he couldn’t really assert himself. Cheteshwar Pujara was similarly, or maybe even more, cornered by talk of strikeball, but he’s made of a different mold. Not many people are as strong psychologically as he is.

Intent, value system

And yet, every time Rahane got open space, he would burst forward like a creative midfielder who suddenly realized he could score instead of pass. As he had when he was captain, the mumble was now perceived as calm, collected, and icy. Even the Delhi Capitals, when he was with them rather than in the lineup, spoke of him with reverence and respect: how he maintained team morale rather than his own self, and synchronized in the background as one of the guys. It’s impossible to doubt his intentions and value system.

Invariably, as always, his fate was decided by the play of the bat. For all the outside pressure, it was incumbent on him to consistently stifle it with his bat like Pujara, but he couldn’t be as consistent.

He had trouble against quality backs; he often got into bindings, into odd spaces. But overseas, especially in recent years, his bat was a mixture of delight and frustration. A flurry of sharp strikes, especially over the offside when his hands just cascade — not many, if any, have faster bat speed — is replaced by clumsy slips or backspin strikes.

He is a batsman who likes to feel the ball on the bat, as they say. That’s his strength and weakness, though he can, if he tries really hard, work wonders. Like, for example, in the 2018 Nottingham Test against England, when he put away the drives he was chipping away at slips; he almost closed up store with that strike for a while. It doesn’t come naturally to him; it was one thing when Sachin Tendulkar put away a cover drive in Sydney; he was a batsman in full possession of his craft and mind. And he has.The whole park was struck. It wasn’t easy for Rahane to get by without his very effective punch.

What comes naturally to him, he finally demonstrated in this IPL. They say defense is a structure and offense is an anti-structure that allows players to express themselves creatively. You could argue the opposite if you pick on it, but the gist of that argument is clear, especially in the case of Rahane.

He does defend well, although TV stats show that he usually anesthetizes the ball from packers on the front foot, it’s such a short step forward that it’s more of an illusion of defending the forward than the real thing. Invariably it gives the impression that he’s playing from his own penalty box. And he gets caught in situations where he gets stabbed, or in lbw scenarios. In the past, when he worked with Pravin Amre, they often tried using a small bat to get him to bend to his front foot. If the man doesn’t quite bend over, the ball is squeezed under the mini bat. Despite the years, his swinging and circling strikes, when he prefers to lean in, have retained their power. He has also improved his game against backs, and did well against Rangana Herath in Sri Lanka, although the real problems begin when the pitch sizzles into alignment.

Straight swing of the bat

Quick hands (and eye) and a fine straight downward swing of the bat are the hallmarks of his bat. The rise of the bat is almost like Tendulkar’s in its straightness. Virender Sehwag was the first Indian batsman other than Tendulkar with such a straight back rise, but his stroke was more supple and had remarkable smoothness. Tendulkar had more hands compared to Sehwag. Rahane is certainly no pure Tendulkar, but his back lift and punch are very close to legendary. There may have been more hand speed, but Tendulkar had more control and accuracy.

Years ago, during the 2015 World Championships, MC Dhoni highlighted two traits of Rahane that set him apart. The strengths of his (Rahane’s) bat are the gift of timing and his ability to exploit gaps in the field. Both can still be seen to this day; the timing can be understood, but the instinct for spotting gaps remains astonishingly high quality. Surava Ganguly had it, but Rahul Dravid did not (to that degree), for example.

Fortunately, this year he teamed up with his core of players. He said a couple of years ago that he was going to bat just as freely,As in the IPL.

This brings us to the most difficult question about the Rahane bit. You can’t say that he curbed himself, sheltered himself in a shell, restraining his strikes. It was not restraint that caused his demise, but rather reckless overkill. In his final phase of tests, he became a counterattacking batsman, a trait that, like Aravind de Silva’s, seemed to show most when the team was in trouble. Aravinda, called Mad Max in the early years, had learned to control it in his popularity by mixing discretion with aggression, and if Rahane could do it, he might yet make his last round last a long time. He’ll come out after the episode and talk about how he felt the attacking episode was necessary for the team, forever justifying his label as a team man, but he should know deep down that it wouldn’t hurt the team if he stayed longer. That may be a stretch, but there was a hint of desperation in that. Probably not the right word, but the lack of calm was felt.

Crisis man-cameo

Then everything was remarkably in sync when the team was in trouble or he was under pressure (I mean, it would have been understandable if he had failed when expectations fell), he unfolded a beauty. In a sense, that’s exactly what he’s been doing in this IPL. Until his name was announced by the selectors, he kept wrecking the ball. Not that he failed after his selection, but a combination of factors led to relatively less performance.

Watching Rahane in the WTC finals could be a pretty fascinating exercise. I’d like to see him remain confident and team management give him that mental space to play freely. But without boiling over. Problems, as always, will arise if he gets caught playing out of position. But if he breaks free, he can hurt the Aussies. With Nathan Lyon batting in the second inning, if the pitch turns out to be as dry as the old Oval, it won’t be easy. Then he’ll have to take a shot in the first inning.

Undoubtedly, a loss at the WTC may force Dravid-led management to pin their hopes on young players again. Not many will be moaning that Rahane is out of the game. This one test is that important to Rahane.

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