There is a certain air of expectation around the 2016-17 season, as India play New Zealand, England and Australia one after the other.
Virat Kohli versus Kane Williamson. Then the India captain pits his wits against Joe Root and Steve Smith, a lip licking prospect for a feast of batting. It will go some way towards finally telling us who is the best young batsman in world cricket today?
A name is missing of that list though, that of Ajinkya Rahane. A man with solid technique, brilliant footwork, a near constant aggressive intent, yet has the temperament to go into a shell when the situation demands it. It should be enough to elevate his status as a special batsman, yet he doesn’t figure in those debates.
There is a prime reason for this. Within cricket, fans and critics alike tend to look for a sole narrative for a story or reputation to be built upon.
It isn’t to say that this is a malpractice, not at all. This categorisation doesn’t usually impact performances of the players concerned, it only serves to shape a storyline of their time.
Built up as the hero of the era of their nation’s cricket, one highly-rated name is normally picked out to steal the limelight from others.
You see this in the disparity in reverence for Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath. You see it in the deity worship of Sachin Tendulkar and the secondary position assigned to Rahul Dravid.
It’s evident in how Brian Lara built an aura around himself that no other West Indies’ batsman could break through. Equally, you see this in Ricky Ponting, even when he was surrounded by players like Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, both of them legends in their own right.
To a certain extent, it explains why Rahane isn’t part of the current celebratory tale. When Tendulkar called time on his career, Indian cricket was immediately looking for a central figure to revolve around, and Kohli – replete with that Adidas-MRF badged look and his inimitable swagger – was a ready made replacement.
In the meantime, Rahane was busy fortifying his position in the Indian middle-order. Coinciding with India’s long overseas schedule, he didn’t disappoint.
Statistics tell the story, here. He averages 69.66 in South Africa, 54 in New Zealand, 33.22 in England, 57 in Australia, 98 in Bangladesh, 29.66 in Sri Lanka and 121.50 in West Indies. He is the only current Indian batsman to cross the 90-mark in an innings in every country the team has visited since 2013, scoring five hundreds along the way.
The two dips in form – in England and Sri Lanka – came in tough conditions and against superior bowling in the former series, and a shuffling up and down the order in the latter. And yet, he stood tall among the ruins in England, scoring a superlative century on a green top at Lord’s.
In Sri Lanka, he worked hard to adjust his game to the number three slot and proved a success with a ton in the second innings of the second Test in Colombo.
His career average (49.00) is higher than Kohli’s (45.06). When considering overseas tours alone, it shoots up even further – 51.22 to 44.61.
At home, his average stands at 39.14, with another two hundreds that have erased memories of his poor debut after becoming the only Indian batsman to cross the 250-run mark in a low scoring series against South Africa last year.
Those twin hundreds in the Delhi Test were a personal marker for Rahane, coming at the same place where he endured that nightmare debut in early 2013. Now past that mental block, he can push his performance higher, like he does in overseas conditions. It puts the coming months in perspective.
The familiar surrounds of India will perhaps aid his pursuit of stringing together a strong run on home soil. His ability to play spin and attack the bowlers is key, for along with Kohli he is the focal point of the Indian batting against the turning ball.
“We don’t take anyone lightly,” Rahane said of the New Zealand’s spin triplets – Ish Sodhi, Mitchell Santner and Mark Craig. “While we respect them, our plan is to not let them settle down and dominate them.” That word “dominate” is significant. A cricketer doesn’t tend to write his own narrative.
Honoured to have received the the prestigious Arjuna Award today by the H'ble Sports Minister Mr. Vijay Goel. pic.twitter.com/3fyFU1w4oN— ajinkyarahane88 (@ajinkyarahane88) September 16, 2016
In this case, it is something that has set Kohli apart from Rahane. In Australia in late 2014, reeling under criticism for his performances in England earlier that year, the Indian captain dominated the Mitchell Johnson-led attack with four back-to-back hundreds.
Kohli just kept churning out run after run. It is similar to what he does in limited-overs cricket, latching on to his good form, repeating the process every time he goes out to bat and decimating the opposition’s bowling along the way.
In the longer format, Rahane has shown this form all over the world and has carried his form through an entire Test series more regularly than Kohli. He has not pummelled the opposition into submission – even against South Africa, it happened in the last Test after a troublesome series – and this remains the one grouse against his batting genius.
Until Rahane is able to do that, he cannot be part of the debate he ought to be. With a run of 13 Tests at home, Rahane has the perfect opportunity to place himself in those conversations.
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