Venkat Ananth

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Ajinkya Rahane: Past tense, future perfect

Indian cricket is, like it or not, on the brink of transition. On its way out is an era remembered for some of the best exponents of the different moods of batsmanship - the classic, the belligerent, the artistic, the stoic. The national selectors are increasingly reconciled to the fact that the Tendulkars, Dravids and Laxmans will not play forever, and have begun looking at the Pujaras, the Kohlis and the Rainas as the faces of India's future.

 

A name that deserves discussion in this context is that of Ajinkya Rahane, the 22-year old Mumbai batsman.

 

Rahane's story is in a sense that of Mumbai cricket itself - a story where cricket is often one strand in a narrative that spans the virtues of grit and determination, an infinite capacity for hard work, a seminal struggle that begins with the fight to board a second class compartment, kit bag in tow, during rush hour and just gets tougher from there. Those who know Mumbai cricket well will tell you that it is a crucible like no other; it toughens you in its fires, and you come out forged at the other end, resulting in a system that settles for nothing less than excellence, both individually and as a team.

 

Rahane is the product of this system, that on its best days has one of the most celebrated dressing-rooms in Indian cricket, a plethora of current and former internationals who value both their Mumbai and India caps. The demographic shift in Indian cricket over the past decade has meant, however, that while Mumbai remain the lords of Ranji cricket, they haven't been able to translate that dominance into booking as many batting slots in the national side - a lacuna the likes of Rahane and his colleagues Rohit Sharma and Abhishek Nayar are trying to bridge.

 

For Rahane, this could well be his breakout season, given his rich vein of form (578 runs in 6 matches for India A, Board President XI and Mumbai), preceded by another Ranji season where he amassed 800-odd runs at a healthy average.

 

"I was very happy with my performances in England (for India A against England Lions and the West Indies A) and also in Australia (for the Emerging Players XI), since it gave me a hint of what international cricket was going to be all about," a confident Rahane said when I met him on the sidelines of practice last week.

 

"One of the things I was personally trying to achieve during these tours was to see if I could mentally adapt myself to different and difficult conditions."

 

This ability to adapt, honed over tough tours with the A team and Emerging Players, was tested against the Australians in their only tour-game at Chandigarh, where he went up against a Test attack and produced a belligerent unbeaten 113 off 111 balls, with over 100 runs coming in just one session - a knock he hopes could be his passport to international cricket.

 

That the innings didn't win him a spot against the Australians in the Tests that followed doesn't weigh Rahane down. "I think that was a very important knock for me, only because it was an opportunity for me to prove to myself that I truly belong at the international level," the young Mumbai batsman says.

 

He followed it up with a brilliant 191 for Mumbai against the Rest of India in the Irani Cup, going up against the India A mates he had toured with recently. The knocks, coupled with Gautam Gambhir's injury, should have seen him break into the national side, but to his luck he was competing with another in-form left-hander, Abhinav Mukund, who got the nod ahead of Rahane.

 

"I felt disappointed, since I thought I played well, especially against the Australians and even in the Irani Trophy, but once I knew I wasn't picked, I told myself not to be nervous and impatient," Rahane reflects. "Nervous" and "impatient" are the key words here, because Indian cricket is rife with stories of cricketers who have burdened themselves with the weight of self-expectation and the pressures of selection instead of focusing on what they can control - scoring runs and/or taking wickets.

 

It is at this point - where a player is doing all he can, without quite making the grade - that mentoring becomes important. Rahane has been blessed with an array of ex-internationals to guide him - a line up that includes Praveen Amre, the Mumbai and former India A coach whom Rahane considers as his mentor. Amre believes the young Mumbai batsman is close to national selection, but wants his ward to be patient.

 

"We use Michael Hussey as an example to motivate him mentally, pointing out that Hussey won his Baggy Green after a decade-plus stint in domestic cricket," Amre tells me. "The key for me as Mumbai coach was to take his talent and potential to the next level, which means a certain level of mental adjustment, and to his credit he's worked hard and done that.

 

"A player must deserve the India cap and he must wait for it," Amre, who knows a thing or two about the struggle to break into the national team, says.

 

Despite Rahane's 3-season old first-class career of 41 matches and 4015 runs, which started off at Karchi with a debut ton (143 off 207) for Mumbai against Karachi Urban in the Mohammad Nissar Trophy, people had been writing him off for various reasons. But his brilliant 172 for West Zone in early 2008 against an England Lions bowling attack consisting of Monty Panesar, Graeme Onions and Liam Plunkett changed his career for good, gave him the required self-belief and sense of belonging - and since then, the naysayers have subsided.

 

He followed it up with a 91 in the Duleep Trophy final; a then record-breaking List A knock that brought him into the national limelight was his 187 off 142 balls against Maharashtra at Pune.

 

Rahane is your classic "through-the-system" cricketer, much like his good-mate Cheteshwar Pujara - players who have been been also-rans in the Indian Premier League, where lesser lights have through cameo performances become the national darlings and been rewarded by selectors with national call ups.

 

The likes of Pujara and Rahane, on the contrary, have not really made the IPL stage their own; rather, they have performed consistently and well, over prolonged periods, at the domestic level - a harder, longer route to the national side.

 

Rahane's modest record in the IPL [modest, that is, barring one stellar partnership with JP Duminy] doesn't quite match his potential, considering the way he plays his game - flashy, quick-scoring and uncompromising, in the Sehwagian mould. The IPL has been for Rahane memorable in other ways. "I spent a lot of time with Sachin Tendulkar discussing my game, mostly about the mental side of things, picking his brains constantly to see how I could improve, and that has helped a lot in the way I am playing today," he says.

 

Though he failed to consistently make the Mumbai Indians starting lineup thanks more to strategic reasons than questions about his ability, Rahane believes he is versatile enough to adapt to varying formats. "I feel I can play in any format today, simply because my mantra is to enjoy cricket and I always keep thinking positive," he says. And in a way, his failure to make it in the shortest format may not exactly be a bad-thing, since that has given him a good opportunity to give his game all the polishing it needs.

 

Michael Hussey, the man coach Amre holds up for Rahane as an example, once said "You know you're ready for international cricket when you know your game inside out and, most importantly, trust your game to come through at the highest level." Do you know your game inside out, do you trust it to come good at the highest level, I asked Rahane. His answer - composed, confident, and crisp - was, "Yes!"

 

The rest is about patience, about continuing to make his case through a glut of runs. That local train that he fights his way onto en route to practice is just one last stop away from its inevitable destination - the India cap.

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