TWO DAYS BEFORE the Johannesburg Test began, Ajinkya Rahane visited Nelson Mandela’s house—now a museum—in the district of Soweto. He did not simply hop into a taxi and make his way there; being the introvert that he is, Rahane requested veteran cricket journalist Sunandan Lele to accompany him. Generous by nature, Lele made all the necessary arrangements for Rahane’s day out, calling ahead and letting the museum’s management know that an Indian Test cricketer was keen on a tour. The management in turn ensured that Rahane’s visit would receive the privileges fit for a man of his stature—a personal guide and privacy. So far, so good.
“Then we got there, Ajinkya, his wife Radhika and I,” says Lele, grinning. “Just as we were about to enter the house, Ajinkya realised this was going to be a private tour, for the three of us, and I could see he was already a little uncomfortable. And when he noticed we didn’t have to buy tickets, he came up to me and very sincerely said in Marathi, ‘Are you sure this is okay? I really hope they don’t think I am abusing my privileges’.”
Lele, a little taken aback by just how bashful Rahane was, had to spend the next few seconds convincing him that it was indeed okay. And that he was by no means doing anything wrong. “Ajinkya is so docile that I had to almost drag him inside,” says Lele. “He is one of those rare cricketers who is a human being first, and a very shy one at that.”
In many ways, Rahane is a misfit in an Indian team that celebrates off-field machismo as much as it does on-field performances. Rahane neither has the muscles nor the tattoos. He doesn’t have a designer hairdo and the edges of his moustache are curved, not twirled. When he exits the team bus, he flashes an old-school smile at the waiting cameras, even as his teammates rattle their wrists—with thumb and little finger sticking out—in some new- age greeting. A story goes that even after he had become an international cricketer—and well before he got married—and had earned enough money to yank his family out of lower middle-class obscurity, Rahane continued to receive ‘pocket money’ from his father.
“Even after he became a big star and all of that, he has remained a sadhu,” says Lele. “But what amazes me most is how this small-in-ego, small-in-size, submissive and shy sadhu transforms instantly into a shaitaan (demon) when he has a cricket bat in his hand. Every time, it simply amazes me.”
For the first two Test matches of India’s much-awaited tour of South Africa, that shaitaan wasn’t unleashed. Rahane, vice-captain of the Indian team and the country’s best batsman in tricky overseas conditions in the past, was left out of Virat Kohli’s playing eleven due to a most controversial selection procedure of picking players on recent form.
Rohit Sharma, who had stuffed himself sick with runs against the visiting Sri Lankans on India’s batting-friendly wickets in ODIs and T20Is, made the cut ahead of Rahane, who, it must be said, was woefully out of form, and India promptly lost both these Test matches, in Cape Town and Centurion, mainly due to their middle-order’s inability to bat on such spicy wickets. Rahane’s nickname isn’t ‘Jinx’ without reason.
Kohli was, of course, questioned by the travelling press (on Rohit’s presence, on Rahane’s absence and on Rohit’s presence causing Rahane’s absence) after the series-loss in Centurion and it will be fair to say that he didn’t find it to his liking one bit. “You tell me what is our best eleven?” he shot back at an Indian reporter when asked if he had failed to play India’s best team and also snapped at a South African journalist by saying he was here “to answer questions and not to fight”. Now, whether Kohli left Rahane out simply based on form or personal reasons, we will never know, but the word from the Indian camp was that Rahane, in the nets before each of the first two Test matches, was throwing his hands at the ball and not playing it—a telltale sign of a batsman out of touch.
Perhaps because the Johannesburg match was a dead rubber or perhaps because of media pressure, or even due to a combination of the two factors, Rahane was included in the playing eleven (in place of Rohit Sharma) and it is no coincidence that India promptly won. On the toughest pitch of the tour and on the toughest day to bat on—so tough that the umpires and the officials nearly called off the Test in the fear that the batsman could get fatally hurt—Rahane top scored for India in the second innings, taming his emotions and the brutal conditions.
In stark contrast to his demeanour outside Mandela’s house a few days ago, Rahane was shy no more. His middle-order essay was the single biggest difference between the two sides. On a wicket where most batsmen struggled to put bat on ball, Rahane dealt with the best pace attack in the world with ease, almost like he was playing backyard cricket in Mulund. In Rahane’s world of mild manners, this was akin to showing off.
OFF THE PENULTIMATE ball before lunch on Day Three of the Wanderers Test, India’s opener Murali Vijay was bowled by the fastest bowler in the world, Kagiso Rabada. Rabada bowled the ball full and straight in Vijay’s blockhole and even before he could get his bat down, the stumps had been rearranged. Vijay’s mode of dismissal, getting yorked, had nothing to do with the pitch and the crack that was developing on it; but both the pitch and the crack had bruised and softened Vijay enough right through the first session of play that he almost seemed glad that he was out without further injuring himself.
On the toughest pitch of the tour and the hardest day to bat on, Rahane dealt with the best pace attack in the world with ease, as if it was backyard cricket
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As Vijay walked up the Wanderers tunnel, the umpires decided to break for lunch. So a fully geared-up Rahane spent the next 40 minutes staring at the pitch from the patio of the visitors’ dressing room. We know this because at the press conference that was held at the end of the day, Rahane said so himself. “I was visualising when I was sitting in the dressing room,” Rahane said. “I was thinking what my approach was going to be because only survival was not the point on this wicket.” It wasn’t.
At lunch on the third day (before Rahane would walk out to bat) of this seesawing final Test, India were 100/4 in their target setting innings, leading by 93. On a pitch where no team had breached 200 in their first innings (India were bowled out 187 and South Africa for 194), Rahane believed that his side was still 80 runs away from posting a decent target for the South Africans. And 80 more runs on this pitch was like scoring three times as much on a normal wicket. Such was the difficulty level.
“I was thinking if we get 170-180 then that will be a good total on this track,” Rahane said. “I was actually thinking from last night what my important shots on this wicket are and how to get aggressive with my batting because I wanted to put South Africa on the backfoot; they were dominating too much with their bowling.”
Wanting to put the best pace attack on the backfoot on a pitch Rahane later claimed to be the “most challenging of my life” is easier thought than done. Off the very first ball he faced in the post-lunch session, Rabada’s ball rose sharply from a length and rapped Rahane’s bat on the handle, an inch below the fingers of his right hand. The biggest problem with the pitch was that a crack had developed about six metres from the base of the stump, so the batsman had no option but to play the ball—and Rahane quickly realised this—due to the crack’s proximity to his front foot. The bounce of the ball, on hitting the crack, was wildly variable too: sometimes it screeched past the batsman ankle-length and at other times it spat up almost vertically, smashing into his ribs, neck and as we would see off the final ball of the day, his face.
To watch Rahane master these conditions was to witness a genius cricketer at the peak of his powers. He held the bat with a softer grip and played the ball late—or as late as he could afford to— so that he could still dig out the low spraying ball in time. And when he got on his front foot, a sure way to ensure body blows on this pitch, Rahane did so with unblinking confidence. Those watching from the stands believed he was either a madman or a mastermind. Often, Rahane was treading a thin line between the two.
Just four balls into his innings, Rahane faced the bouncy Morne Morkel for the first time. First ball, Morkel dug the ball in short and Rahane was ready, tiptoed on his backfoot, pulling the ball behind square and shutting the face of his bat simultaneously—like a top-spinning Djokovic forehand. He earned two runs for this effort. Annoyed, Morkel aimed for the crack next ball and hit bull’s eye. The ball darted in and pinned Rahane on his hip. He winced in pain, but when the next ball was bowled he had taken a big stride ahead (madman) and drove a short of a length ball (mastermind) past Morkel’s feet for 3 runs.
For a partner, Rahane had Virat Kohli, and together they ran hard between the wickets and made sure the fast bowlers never did settle down against a particular batsman’s weakness. When batting on 6, Rahane was gifted a short and wide ball by Vernon Philander and in the zone of complete focus that he found himself in, Rahane cut it past point for four without much thought. Philander adjusted his length to full and Rahane merrily flicked it through midwicket for four more.
To balloon India’s lead past 125 runs, Rahane punished Morkel for two more boundaries in an over, the second of which was the stroke of the day. The ball obeyed no one when it hit the widening crack and Rahane, unconcerned by the wobble, thumped it over the cover fielder’s head for a two-bounce four. He lost Kohli soon after, with the lead on 127, bowled by the unplayable Rabada. But Rahane’s innings, and his will to fight, was far from finished. After he drove Philander to the ropes with a delicious off-drive the following over, Rahane was batting on 27 runs. From 26 balls. On this pitch. Try and wrap your head around that.
He was finally dismissed when India’s lead nudged the 200- mark, four runs short of a figure that wasn’t previously touched in this Test and wouldn’t be threatened by the chasing South Africans either. To help India get to 247 and eventually win this Test by 63 runs (SA were bowled out for 177 in the last innings), Rahane rallied the lower order with panache and scored 48. The runs were worth a daddy hundred on any other wicket and on any other day, it would have made headlines back in India. But shortly after Rahane’s knock, Dean Elgar was hit in the face—a hit that hurt more than just the South African opener. Thanks to this blow, which had nothing to do with a faulty pitch in the first place, Rahane played second fiddle in the press conference to the suits who threatened to stop the match—the team managers and match officials.
For close to 20 minutes, Rahane sat subserviently on a spare seat in the conference hall as India’s team manager, Sunil Subramaniam, fielded questions on the pitch, the match referee, the ball that smacked Elgar and India’s position on the possible abandonment of the Test; in short, everything but Rahane’s special innings. When Rahane finally had the clutch of mics in front of him, with a heatboil the size of a golf ball radiating between his eyebrows, he too patiently spoke about everything but his knock.
Until, on the 16th question, he was asked about his batting. The questioner was Lele. In Marathi, Lele had asked, “Ajinkya, how come you are so timid off the field and so aggressive on it?” Perhaps for the first time all day, a smile tore across Rahane’s face. “What do I say, sir?” he replied, in Marathi. “My behaviour is very different when I am not on the field and when I am on it. Which is good, I guess, because the opposition often notice what you are like when you are not playing cricket and assume that is how you are when playing the game also.”
At the end of the presser, once the dictaphones and the TV cameras had gone off, Rahane met Lele by the door and whispered a few words into his ear. “He told me,” said Lele, “I am quite happy if [the opposition] mistake me for a shy and docile guy. Most of the times, that is a good thing.”