It’s been 28 innings and two years since Ajinkya Rahane recorded his last Test hundred. In the same period, nine Indian batsmen (min. 10 innings) have recorded a better average than his 24.85 in Test cricket. While Virat Kohli has thrown his weight behind the team’s vice-captain, Rahane will know that time is running out.
He was dropped from the team for the first two Tests in South Africa last year for Rohit Sharma but made a fighting knock in the third Test on return and has featured in all Tests India have played since. But the returns have been less than promising. What’s even more glaring is how his Test game has tapered off in the last three years.
Once a mainstay in India’s Test batting line-up and perhaps even their best Test batsman alongside Kohli, the beginning of India’s extended home season from September 2016 signalled the fall of Rahane.
The Mumbai batsman’s average has dropped from 49 to 33.87 in the last two years. The hundreds have also been hard to come by. Seven of his nine Test hundreds came before September 2016. There has been the odd exceptional innings like his 188 against New Zealand at home, but it came at Indore - on a flat pitch and in the first innings.
A firefighter once, Rahane’s returns have diminished under pressure. More glaring is the fact that he has been struggling against spin. He has been dismissed by spin 25 times since the beginning of India’s home season in 2016 and a possible chink in his armour is a weakness against left-arm spin.
Nine of his 25 dismissals to spin in this period have come against left-arm spinners. From Malinda Pushpakumara and Mitchell Santner to Shakib Al Hasan, Taijul Islam, Steven O’Keefe and Zafar Ansari, left-arm orthodox spinners have had a gala time against India’s middle-order mainstay.
His dismissal percentage against left-arm spin since September 2016 has increased from 17% to 36% and it is this weakness that South Africa, later in India this year, would be targeting. They have a left-arm spinner in their ranks in Keshav Maharaj and Rahane’s task at home, where his record has never been good enough, will be cut out. This makes the West Indies series all the more important for Rahane.
Rahane has always fared better away from home unlike many Indian batsmen, with an average of 44.3 away compared to 34.5 at home. Since his debut, Ravichandran Ashwin and Shikhar Dhawan are the only other Indian batsmen to have a better record away than at home. But those two have made runs in Asia unlike Rahane who averages a healthy 39.02 in SENA nations.
After two years of scarce returns - just five half-centuries since his last Test hundred in Colombo - Rahane’s place is rightly under scrutiny. A county stint with Hampshire this season proved ineffective as he made 307 runs in 13 innings at an average of 23.61. Five other batsmen from Hampshire alone recorded better numbers than him this season.
As he heads to the Windies, Rahane will know that this could be a make or break series for him. Before India’s long home season in 2016, the last away tour was in West Indies where Rahane became the Test vice-captain for the first time.
His last consistent returns in a Test series came on that tour where he made scores of 22, 108*, 35 and 78*. In four Tests in West Indies, Rahane averages 121.5, his best in any Test-playing nation. West Indies are also among his most favoured Test opponents and he averages 91 against them in the five-day format with a hundred and two half-centuries in six innings.
A return to a place where he was last in consistent form could just be the boost Rahane needs. He started the tour on a poor note by scoring one in the first innings of the warm-up game against West Indies A but made an interesting change in the second innings. Rahane, who was captaining in this game with Kohli sitting out, pushed himself to open the innings and scored a hard-fought half-century.
The move is an interesting one because KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal are India’s only two openers in this series. India have avoided taking a back-up opener and this had raised eyebrows at the time of team announcement. But with Rahane as back-up opener, could India be trying out a new move?
While Mayank thrived in his debut series, he hasn’t played after that and Rahul hasn’t quite cemented his Test spot yet. Prithvi Shaw is out till after the South Africa Test series at home due to a doping ban and India do not really have anyone zeroed in as a back-up opener unless the management is ready to go back to Shikhar Dhawan or Murali Vijay.
With Rahane struggling in the middle-order, they might well be considering him in an opening role, one which he has donned before in the early stages of his career in domestic cricket.
In the middle-order, though, Rahane faces stiff competition from Rohit whose limited-overs form has been compelling enough for him to remain a part of the setup in the longer format. There are also others in Hanuma Vihari, Karun Nair and Shubman Gill waiting to step up in his place should Rahane not click this time around. The Windies remain a challenging frontier and Rahane knows that he has to get back to his old run-scoring ways before it’s too late.