There was a sequence of three balls in the middle of the third day at the Oval that captured the entire career of Ajinkya Rahane. The first, a nip-backer from Cameron Green caught him on the crease, neither precisely forward nor back, a staple sight in his down days, and it triggered an lbw appeal. Rahane has already survived a lbw on Thursday, as it proved to be a no-ball. The second was fuller and outside off and Rahane threw his hands at it, and the ball scooted over the slips. Those hands can often betray him, but he has done one quiet tweak that we shall soon attend to. The third was a fine back-of-length kicker outside off, and Rahane creamed it dreamily on-the-up through extra cover. The magic of timing and the ability to find gaps has been a wondrous trait over the years. That hasn’t waned one bit. Three balls, three Rahane responses – the ugly, bad, and good.
Sometime around this sequence, Kumar Sangakkara piped up on air. “It doesn’t matter where you are standing – outside the crease like Marnus Labsuchagne or on the line like Rahane, Travis Head, what matters is where you are making contact. The point of contact is where you are in most control. You are in control of your hands, and the head over it, and not losing control of your hands.” It nails the Rahane batting crux: the hands. It’s what gives that charming timing and also when it betrays him, it can create stabbed edges.
Here is the tweak he has made, visible in this game. At stance, he is now holding the bat a touch down. It’s still lifted in the air – the tap-the-pitch-ers are a rarity these days — but the bat face points down and the bat is held raised below the bails, much closer to the ground. Previously, he would have it horizontal almost in line with the bails or above, and then yank it further up. And pretty often, the bat would rear way too up. And from there the downward bat swing would begin. It’s where the troubles would start. From there, his wrist-cock would drag the bat down, but often it can be a turbulent affair. Or out of control, as Sangakkara puts it. He would end up stabbing the ball or not playing as late, or flail at the ball. The bat angle just as he tries to get it down from that height can go awry, go a touch too wide or too high. Not always, of course, but in those combustible moments.
5000 Test runs and going strong 💪💪
— BCCI (@BCCI) June 9, 2023
Now, the hands are far more still in stance. The bat is held a touch down. As the bowler rushes into the crease, sets up for the release, he raises the bat up. Now, it doesn’t breach too high into out-of-control areas. And the downward swing is also a lot smoother, resultantly. His hands are in control, more. With the hands still-er, the head too is more in control. With the hands in control, he doesn’t find himself too upright also.
— BCCI (@BCCI) June 9, 2023
There is another facet that has troubled him in the past. He would defend well, seemingly off the front foot, but it was such a short stride that he would invariably get caught in the crease, leading to fatal edges or lbw. It still happens, as it would a few times this innings also, but with a steadier head and hands in control, he is able to play late than usual. Numerous times, he adjusted to the straighteners from Pat Cummins and Scott Boland to bunt it out late to the off side. With the earlier bat-trigger, all those would end up as hurried stabs; not so now. As he opened up after his fifty, and started to go for more shots, some of those errors came as he was actively seeking out the ball, and not playing as late.
The late Martin Crowe once talked about the essence in reading the ball: you pick up the length early so that you can play it late. More the delay, the more rushed you would be. The hands would start jarring.
Some of Head’s shots to length and back of length balls were startling in their simplicity. With his set-up, it’s not aesthetic on the eye, but how often was he able to punch fairly straight balls through the off side, with an angled bat. He has a unique wrist-cock, something that his batting mentor Tim Nielsen has talked about, and he is able to hold his balance, collapse his arms, and punch balls even on off and middle through cover point. Rahane too can unfurl raspy wristy-punches through cover point to similar balls.
That brings us to the rather important facet: his headspace. In the past, it’s not as if he had restricted himself or gone into a shell, but if anything had reduced himself to counter-attacking cameos. He is better than that. His raw talent should have propped him up alongside Virat Kohli, Joe Root, and Kane Williamson, and more than three, he can unfurl dreamy raspy shots, but things haven’t got that way. Life. Sport.
On air, Justin Langer revealed a rather interesting nugget about Rahane and how he spent his time leading up to the 2021 series in Australia where he led India to a famous triumph.
“Before the series started Steve Waugh, my hero, he rang me and said I was going to be transparent. I wanna be honest I’m having some conversations with Rahane…doing a bit of mentoring him leading to that series,” Langer said. “Not Steve Waugh, the iceman and we saw that calmness in Rahane, we saw the way he played in that series and when I knew he was talking to Steve, it was red flags for me.”
Only Rahane would know how much that helped him, but clearly he needed that kind of mentoring and support. When he seemed on top of his game in the early years, he was randomly dropped for games, a cumulative effect of which only he would know. But a talk with someone like Waugh could have only helped.
He has always been a calm, composed, in-control sort of a chap, who would also give an impression that he could have done with a bit more support in the middle phase of his career. The people close to him would talk about this and that, but he has largely kept his silence. There was never ever any question of his team-man intent; if anything it became his calling card.
The last time he was dropped, it seemed like the final straw, but he got a chance now and was served with a tough but a situation where he revels: India down and seemingly out, and he could be the boy on the burning deck again.