After waiting for 16 months and being part of the ‘bench’ for 16 consecutive Tests, Ajinkya Rahane, the player from Mumbai who averaged 62.04 with the bat in 60 First-Class games, finally made his Test debut for India on 22nd March 2013.
The Indian Test team was going through turbulent times back then. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, India’s finest middle-order batters, had retired after India lost eight consecutive matches in England and Australia. Sachin Tendulkar looked a shadow of his former self and was on the wane. But all was not lost. Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli had already made their mark in international cricket and it was now time for Rahane to shine and form a new core of the middle-order batters. Perhaps, overwhelmed by the occasion and after waiting patiently for so long, the fatigue of constantly being on the bench got to Rahane as he played two forgettable innings on his Test debut against the visiting Aussies.
The next Test series for India was Tendulkar’s farewell series and just before that series, Rohit Sharma scored his maiden double hundred in ODIs. As fate would have it, that innings made him jump the queue, and Sharma was soon handed his Test debut at the expense of his Mumbai teammate Rahane. It was all too familiar for Rahane, who had seen seven players make their Test debut for India ahead of him while he was a part of the squad.
Tendulkar’s retirement created a vacancy in the Indian middle-order. Pujara was a straight swap for Dravid at number three, Kohli for Tendulkar at four. Sharma, on the back of his twin hundreds against the West Indies, sealed the number five spot. Rahane, who was usually a top-order batter for Mumbai, now found himself batting at number six for the Indian team. Rahane repaid the faith with a well-made 47 in his first innings outside India.
In his next Test, Rahane did what India’s former number six, VVS Laxman used to do regularly – score crucial runs with the lower-order for the company. Rahane scored his first half-century in Test cricket with an unbeaten 51 in the first innings and followed it up with a brilliant 96 batting with the tail. Those innings showed that Rahane was going to be a key member of the transitioning Indian Test side, especially away from home.
Till mid-October in 2016, Rahane scored eight Test centuries, one each in New Zealand, England, Australia and West Indies, and a 96 in South Africa. During that period, Rahane scored a Test hundred every 6.25 innings and had a fifty-plus score every 2.94 innings. Against South Africa at home, where both teams struggled to score runs, Rahane was the lone centurion of the series, scoring twin hundreds at Delhi. It felt that India have found their new middle-order geniuses in the trio of Pujara-Kohli-Rahane.
On 9th October 2016, Rahane scored his career-best score of 188 against New Zealand in Indore. After the Indore Test, Rahane was averaging 51. 37 from 29 Tests. These were excellent returns for a player who had played just eight matches at home and 17 matches outside the subcontinent. But there was something significant about that innings of 188, as it turned out to be a defining landmark in Rahane’s career.
Post Indore 2016
Since that innings of 188, Rahane averages just 33.07 from 49 matches with just four centuries. In this period, Rahane has managed to get a fifty-plus score every 4.3 innings but the match-defining innings that he was known for, has come at a premium. Since his career-best innings five years ago, Rahane has scored a hundred every 20.5 innings. The solidity in his technique, through which he gained enormous returns in SENA countries, was also found inadequate, as he averaged just 27.26 runs per innings from 21 Test matches in the SENA countries.
Things were not always gloomy for Rahane, as in the first World Test Championship cycle, Rahane was India’s leading run-scorer, although he played six more tests than Rohit Sharma, who was second on the list with just 65 fewer runs.
2016 was Rahane’s second most prolific year, where he scored 653 runs and averaged 54.42, but 2017 and 2018 weren’t as productive for Rahane as he averaged just 34.62 and 30.66 respectively. 2019 was Rahane’s best year in Tests, averaging 71.33 in eight Tests with two centuries. But that crest was followed by severe troughs, a common theme in Rahane’s career, as since the start of 2020, he averages just 24.77 runs per innings. In that period, Rahane has reached 50 just thrice – once every nine innings. Things did look promising when Rahane struck a magnificent 112, perhaps, a series-defining century against all odds at the MCG in the Boxing Day Test of 2020, but it turned out to be another rare high amongst the frequent lows.
After the highs of 2019, 2021 remains Rahane’s worst year in Test cricket. Despite scoring two half-centuries this year, Rahane averages just 19.57 in 19 innings. With twin failures against England at the Oval, including a second-innings duck, Rahane’s career now seems to be at crossroads. Will the team management continue showing faith in him and play him in the fifth Test at Manchester? Will Rahane be able to repay the faith that’s shown in him for an extended period? Or is this the end of a career that promised so much initially, showed sparks in between but is slowly fading away as it nears its end?