Not to jinx him, but you write Rahane off at your own peril

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Ajinkya Rahane has not appeared to live up to his billing as replacement for The Wall, nor been as successful facing the new ball as one would like. But the numbers suggest it would never be too late to continue reposing faith in him.

How is Rahane poised in his ODI career at this moment? At a tipping point or in looming darkness of uncertainty? | AFP

Six months after the 2011 World Cup victory, Indians were on a tour almost devoid of any sweet memories. During India’s tour of England, in the 1st ODI at Chester-le-Street on September 3, 2011, two cricketers crossed paths in the international arena. One a legend of Indian cricket, the other a youngster with perceived flair. As India was readying to formally bid goodbye to Rahul Dravid from the ODIs, some had already started describing Ajinkya Madhukar Rahane as India’s replacement of the former. The debutant Rahane scored a promising 44-ball-40 and came up with 54(47), 0(3), 38(53), and 26(47) through the series. There were shades of talent but far from warranting a long-lasting hope.

Four years on, came the ICC Cricket World Cup again. Match 15, India v South Africa at Melbourne on February 22, 2015; in a crucial encounter against the Proteas, now a grown-up, Rahane this time fired on all cylinders with a 60-ball-79 to propel India to a 307. So much so, Rahane’s innings drew some unusual comments. Slayer, flamboyant, destroyer — were the attributes used to describe Rahane’s batting display that day. The rest of his World Cup expedition showed scores of 0(1), 79(60), 14(34), 33*(28), 19(24), 19(37), 44(68). There were shades of talent but far from warranting a long-lasting hope.

 

Rahane may not have the swagger of a Kohli or the stage presence of a Dhawan but can take hits on his helmet nonchalantly and deliver a defiant knock. He isn't as popular as a Dhoni or as charismatic as a Yuvraj but can see off hard periods and score at a Strike Rate of 150.

Back to the present. two years post the 2015 World Cup and on the back of the Champions Trophy (without any games), Rahane was entrusted with the opening position for all five matches against the West Indies and his performances read 62(78), 103(104), 72(112), 60(91), 39(51) respectively. First Man of the series award in a ODI career nearly seven years old.

Does Rahane’s talent now give us any long-lasting hope?

From September 2011 to present day, over one World Cup, two Champions Trophies and several other limited-overs tournaments, a lot of things have changed in Indian cricket. Rahul Dravid — the man whose shoes Rahane was believed to be filling — has gone from 'dependable batsman' to 'batting consultant designate'. India’s catastrophic 2011-tour of England has been superseded by fresh recollections of a recent English summer, the 2017 Champions Trophy. Captain Cool’s reign of Team India has now given way to Kohli’s Kingdom. Among all these changes and more, one thing has however largely remained constant: Ajinkya Rahane’s ambiguous fate in India's limited-overs story. How is Rahane poised in his ODI career at the moment? At a tipping point or in looming darkness of uncertainty?

Benchmarking Rahane with his peer group

We are at a point where the game has changed a lot in the recent past. Gauging Rahane by just his ODI Average and Strike Rate would not tell us anything significant. Not enough to explain why is he still not a regular member of the team. After all, an average of 37 is not bad and a strike rate of 77 is also decent. Understanding Rahane would hence require an analysis in the right contexts such as mapping his numbers in the current cricketing scheme of things (in a 5-year time frame, for instance) with the appropriate set of players (against batting position of the players, for instance).

We therefore benchmark Rahane’s performances both as an opener and a middle order batsman — that are the two positions he has played most and are likely in the foreseeable future as well — across 5 important parameters: Number of innings played, Runs Scored, Batting Average, Batting Strike Rate and Percentage runs scored in boundaries. We consider players only with 10 or more ODI innings.

So, what do the numbers throw up for Rahane? Is he a world-class player? Which position suits him the best? Is he better than his Indian counterparts?

There seems to be a belief in cricketing circles than Rahane is better suited as an opener than any position lower (if at all he is in the team). His promotion as an opener in the recently concluded West Indies series seemed to reinforce that belief. He has done well to justify it, having been awarded the solo career Man of the Series in the Caribbean.

How good an opener is Rahane?

The benchmarking exercise, with its numbers, suggests Rahane has some distance to cover to be counted among the better openers. Among 64 cricketers who have opened an ODI innings in the last five years for ten or more occasions, Rahane seems to be an average one in comparison. At best at par...

 

... and often worse in certain parameters. Far from being as belligerent as a Brendon Mccullum (Strike Rate 154) but still better than a Tamim Iqbal and an Ahmed Shehzad. Not as consistent (batting average) as a Hashim Amla or a David Warner but better than an Aaron Finch and a Jason Roy.

Compared to Shikhar and Rohit?

Team India have tried 12 different batsmen as openers in the last five years. Only four, however, stood the test of time and increasing competition to go on to play 10 or more innings. Rahane certainly is one among them besides Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Gautam Gambhir. Rohit and Shikhar, two of Rahane’s competitors for the opening slot in recent times, have been, as the numbers suggest, far superior to Rahane in all parameters. Not to mention, a KL Rahul (not in our benchmark as he has just played six ODIs) who is waiting in the wings too has better numbers than Rahane.

All in all, both in comparison to global and Indian players, Rahane as an opener is still not a serious force or key differentiator to be reckoned with.

A better middle-order batsman?

From AB de Villiers to MS Dhoni and from Eoin Morgan to Joe Root, the world has seen a lot of quality players in the middle order (batting at 4 and 5). Among 69 players from across all world who have batted at such positions in the last five years and played at least 10 innings, Rahane is on a par with or better than his peers — a peer group decked with some distinguished names. Rahane may not be as flamboyant (Strike Rate) as a Josh Butler but maintains it better than a Joe Root. He is not as consistent (average) as an AB de Villiers but tad better than a Suresh Raina or a Corey Anderson in these positions in such time frame.

 

How grave is Rahane’s ‘Strike Rotation’ problem in the middle overs?

When MS Dhoni, the then captain, made a somewhat uncharacteristic comment about one of his team members, few doubted its veracity. Uncharacteristic, because it was a negative comment attributed to one of Team India’s technically best batsman. The comment was about Rahane’s incapability to rotate the strike in the middle overs.

 

To rotate strike is to constantly go about packing one’s innings with the singles and the couples and not relying much on boundary-hitting. It is important not only to keep the game rolling but also to take pressure away from the batsmen at the other end. Considering this, if one is to compare the Strike Rates and percentage of runs in boundaries of the Indian middle-order batsmen (in the last five years), Yuvraj Singh appears to be the one with a more acute strike-rotation problem. Yuvraj scores at SR of 88.8 with 60% runs in boundaries whereas Dhoni and Rahane score at SRs of 87 and 85 respectively with 45% runs in boundaries.

What this means is that if Yuvraj scores 88 runs in a match (from 100 balls) with 60% runs coming from boundaries, he is scoring 53 runs in boundaries and just 35 in singles and couples. So, he is taking 9-13 (Maximum with all 4s and minimum with all 6s) balls to score 53 runs that are coming from the boundaries and a minimum of 87 balls to score the other 35. This is off-putting and creates pressure on the batsman at the other end.

Whereas Rahane, who scores at a SR of 85 with a boundary proportion 45%, would score just 38 runs in boundaries and 47 in singles and couples when he plays an average 100 deliveries. Hence, he is scoring just 3 runs less than Yuvraj (in 100 balls) but is keeping the game rolling better. Somebody with a substantially higher SR can afford to score less in singles and couples without affecting the game (and their batting partners) — someone like a Chris Gayle, for example, scores significantly through 6s and 4s in T20s.

Singling out Rahane with a ‘strike rotation problem’ is hence a little harsh.

Overall, as a middle-order batsman, Rahane is not only above par globally but also exhibits a good record among Indians. He is more consistent than many and on a par with the Indian average at scoring quickly. He is third in both batting average (after Dhoni and Virat Kohli) and total runs scored (after Suresh Raina and Dhoni) among a pool of seven Indian players who have played more than 10 innings at the batting positions of 4/5 in the last five years.

 

What is next?

There are a lot of attributes associated with Rahane's ODI game. Most of them are neither outrageous nor extolling. Both in criticism and in praise, watchers label Rahane somewhat with restraint. On the one hand, fans know Rahane can pull off inningses such as the one he played against the South Africans in the 2015 World Cup or the one against the same opponent during the bi-lateral series in Mumbai later that year 87(58). On the other, and in the eyes of most, followers associate his ODI batting with mediocrity, slowness and passivity. Rahane has exhibited all these traits at some point.

Talking about Rahane, however, is not like randomly discussing any other cricketer. Ajinkya is a compelling case of Indian cricket like no others. For his immense potential and discipline, one can only write Rahane off at his own peril. Ajinkya Rahane may not have the swagger of a Virat Kohli or the stage presence of a Shikhar Dhawan but can take hits on his helmet nonchalantly and deliver a defiant knock. He is not as popular as an MS Dhoni or as charismatic as a Yuvraj Singh but can both see off hard periods and score at a SR of 150.

 

One should keep in mind that Rahane is not a one-season wonder. He made his debut after amassing 4,000 first-class runs. For someone whose career is in a constant state of improvement, bridging that 5-run shortfall in batting average and 10-runs-per-100 balls gap in Strike Rate is an inevitability.

Rahane is a cricketer who grows strength to strength with every dosage of confidence earned. To extract the best of Rahane, one (yes, that’s Virat Kohli) needs to show faith in his calibre, as did Rahul Dravid, Pravin Amre and Shane Watson at various points of his career. That assured, we can brace ourselves to see a Rahane serving Indian ODI cricket for a sufficiently long time.

(Note: All benchmarking numbers are for players with 10 or more innings in last 5 years)

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