Ajinkya Rahane: Cricket’s Common Man

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Ajinkya Rahane: Cricket’s Common Man

Illustration: Saachi Mehta and Juergen Dsouza

I

t’s the summer of 2014. The first day of the second test at Lord’s. England wins the toss and chooses to field on one of the greenest tops the iconic ground had ever witnessed. A young, thin man walks to the crease after Virat nicks a perfect outswinger from James Anderson. The next delivery is even better than the one that got Kohli out, but Ajinkya Rahane plays it with soft hands and it doesn’t carry to the slip cordon.

The wickets keep falling, and at one point India is trembling at 143-7, with Rahane unbeaten at 31, but for the most part of the day, he is strong enough for both batsmen on the crease. He scores a hundred and goes on to join the Lord’s honours board, but more importantly helps India record its first test win in 28 years at the Mecca of Cricket.

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While India celebrated the birth of a star that July, for Rahane it was just another day. He was doing his job. And doing it damn well.

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When Ajinkya Rahane was just one of the millions of spindly, cricket-crazy boys in our country, he would take the morning local from Dombivli, on the outskirts of Mumbai, to Shivaji Terminus. If you’ve done the route, you will know that it is at least an hour’s journey in a fast train and an hour and a half in a slow one. The local train is a heaving mass of bodies, chock-full with daily office-goers, college teens, sellers, vendors – all packed in a moving chamber, from their homes in the fringes of the city to its more flourishing centre. This journey is not an option, not for any of them. It is a necessity.

Rahane too had to get to the other side. There were hardly any cricket grounds in Dombivli and if you wanted to play against the best of the lot, Azad Maidan, Shivaji Park, or Oval Maidan were the places to be. It was always an away match for outer city boys like Rahane, unfamiliar with the pitch and turning spots, and where the outfield was fast. And to make it there, they couldn’t just be good. Good doesn’t take you anywhere in this cut-throat world of cricket with over 300 clubs in play. Especially if you’re from a low-middle class family where the amount of household income that goes toward supporting your cricketing passion is almost non-existent.

If you’re a rich kid, you are probably part of a rich club which means you are blessed with enough matches to practice, plus you don’t have to worry about that cross-bat shot which can break your willow or the dive to impress the selectors that can tear your whites. You can buy your second chances. But for a kid from Dombivli, even if you are the kid with all the talent in the world, you don’t get the same number of chances. You don’t have the luxury of playing a cross-bat shot to dominate the game, you have to stick to your means, and still dominate the opponent.

Rahane was this kid with no second chances and no luxuries. He had to be great and he had to win every single time to make sure he got to play the next match. Rajan Dhotre, Rahane’s coach, would tell him, “Win one match, you will get (to play) another.”

I was looking at the video of his maiden century and I realised that Rahane is a sum total of all the greats he has idolised his whole life.

So Rahane learnt to play as hard as he could. Just to hold on, just to be able to get on that train again, and present himself every new day. And in this everyday practice of showing up and giving each day all he had, Rahane became so goddamn good at his job that he became the only player in the world to have at least one score of 90 or more in eight consecutive Test series.

This number is far more impressive than it looks. This number stands for more than God-gifted talent. It stands for hard work and the backing he gets to make a comeback after every bad inning. Every player goes through purple patches in his career and he gets a second chance based on his last scores and the promise he had once shown. But Rahane learnt very early in his career that you don’t get second chances. No matter who he is playing against, what kind of a pitch or situation he finds himself in, he is there to do a job. He’s the best employee the Indian team can boast of and he doesn’t care if others are performing or not. He has his target and he will hit it.

As the last specialist batsman in the batting line-up, Rahane hardly seems to disappoint. He has thrived multiple times with the lower order. His five out of seven tons have come while batting with the tail. Imagine Rahane then as an efficient member of a sales force of a company required to perform and achieve a target with a bunch that you know isn’t competent enough to do that. And while some of the other great players panic and lose their focus, with wickets continuously falling at the other end, plucky Rahane waits patiently. He doesn’t resign. It is his dream job.

When Rahane started playing domestic cricket, he wasn’t like Rohit Sharma or Kohli, who would just play one shot and you’d immediately know that they’re tailor-made for the national side. He wasn’t the naturally gifted sales guy that the head of the company would choose to send for an international posting. He didn’t have the requisite swagger. He was too calm and composed. He didn’t hit big, shiny shots and instead played proper cricketing drives. And although in complete control of his batting, he could be misunderstood for someone a notch too careful, which can give the opposition an impression that they could send this guy back to the pavilion. But that’s a mistake many opponents and the selectors have had to pay for.

After an inevitable selection to the national side, he had to warm the bench for more than 15 matches before he could get a chance to don the India cap. Imagine how frustrating it is for a young man in peak form, to not get a single opportunity for months despite being the best player in domestic cricket for more than three seasons. Ever been a back up in your life? It’s like you are called on for a project, then made to sit out for the next 15 meetings, where others are continuously contributing, but you have to wait because you only get a chance if someone else isn’t good enough. But Rahane knew good things take time and he had anyway waited longer for an empty seat in a local on his way back home after many long days of playing under the sun. He didn’t give up. It was his dream job.

Once on the tour to Durban, as soon as he arrived on the crease, he was welcomed by a thunderbolt bouncer from Dale Steyn, which hit his helmet. Steyn, who certainly was at the top of his speed and form, had sent six Indian batsmen home in that Test. Remember that client, who everyone wanted to impress but was a little difficult to handle? And everyone from your top management had taken turns, but fallen short, and left you to face the most fearsome opponent? Steyn was that guy.

Rahane kept his focus on the end goal; he didn’t let himself lose in the details. He gathered courage and hammered Steyn for two boundaries in the next two overs and made his way to his maiden half-century. Later in an interview, he admitted that even though it was painful, he didn’t show it, as it would have given the opposition confidence that they have an upper hand on him.

I was looking at the video of his maiden century and I realised that Rahane is a sum total of all the greats he has idolised his whole life. Be it getting off the mark with a minimal straight drive like Sachin or playing the ball to third man with soft hands like Dravid. Rahane’s humility lies in the fact that he is always learning, tuning, improving himself to be the best employee of the Indian side.

And while the others look at the pitch as their natural playground, Rahane, the boy from Dombivli, is just grateful that he has had a chance to take guard today.

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