The Ajinkya Rahane mystery clouded the Indian team’s preparation ahead of the second One-Day International against Sri Lanka at the PCA Stadium here. On the eve of the match, he presented a desolate figure on Tuesday, even as the rest of the members went through the rituals of nets and fielding drills.
For Rahane, it must be difficult to comprehend the reasons for his exclusion from the playing XI. Only last June, he had scores of 62, 103, 72, 60, 39 in the West Indies when he performed the role of an opener and won the man-of-the-series honours. In the home series against Australia, he justified his place with a sequence of 5, 55, 70, 53, 61 in September, all as an opener.
The official explanation for keeping Rahane out is that he is to be considered a designated opener. No place in the middle-order for him. The team management, to avoid uncomfortable questions, sent rookie Washington Sundar for the mandatory match-eve press conference. The young Tamil Nadu all-rounder handled the media with credit but did not have to deal with questions related to Rahane.
On the one hand, the Indian team management wants us to believe that the focus is on creating a flexible set of players where anyone can play any role. But Rahane does not belong to that plan. He is just an opener. Even if it means the middle-order may assume a brittle appearance.
It is hard to imagine Rahane not figuring in the scheme of things with the South African tour just round the corner. The Mumbai batsman has a fabulous record overseas and is considered among the most technically adept at tackling the seaming and bouncing ball. He had made a shaky start to his First Class career but Pravin Amre, the Mumbai coach, backed him. “I was convinced of his potential,” said Amre. This team management, however, thinks differently.
For any team to do well in challenging situations overseas, it is mandatory to have six batsmen as the core of the line-up. No team can win in tough situations by banking on only two or three. Building a batting unit takes time and India has identified its core — Virat Kohli, M. Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rahane and K.L. Rahul — and Rohit Sharma has joined the list recently.
Rahane, the vice-captain for the Test series, is relegated to second choice in the one-day scheme because the team management has to adjust others.
True, Shreyas Iyar and Manish Pandey have won the faith of the management but doubts persist as far as their technique and temperament are concerned when faced with a pitch amiable to the bowlers.
Among this lot, Rahane is the one batsman who has proved he can bat at any slot. He can shore up the middle-order or wear the mantle of opener with equal finesse. To tag him as an opener has only resulted in denting his confidence despite a decent consistency this year. Even Sunil Gavaskar has asked questions and wondered why Rahane has been targeted.
Rahane, with proven talent and ability, is known to absorb pressure and set up the stage for the middle-over batsmen and the finishers. When the ball flies close to the face on pitches overseas, it is batsmen like Rahane who will shoulder the responsibility better than the best. Coaches point out he is superb when picking the line of the ball and leaving it — a much-needed quality when countering the moving ball.
Rahane may not necessarily get to play on Wednesday on a pitch where batting first would be the key. Sri Lanka has little to worry about but the Indians would have to dig deep and work hard to prove that the Dharamshala debacle was just an aberration.
The teams (from):
India: Rohit Sharma (capt.), Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, Washington Sundar, Dinesh Karthik, M.S. Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Siddarth Kaul.
Sri Lanka: Thisara Perera (capt.), Upul Tharanga, Danushka Gunathilaka, Lahiru Thirimanne, Angelo Mathews, Asela Gunaratne, Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Chaturanga de Silva, Akila Dananjaya, Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep, Sadeera Samarawickrama, Dhananjaya de Silva, Dushmantha Chameera, Sachith Pathirana, and Kusal Perera.