The eyes. Wide. Round. Bright. Focused. They stare at the bowler. They stare at the ball. If eyes are the gateway to the soul, then Ajinkya Rahane’s soul is desperate to play the next ball well.
They stared like that when he first played international cricket. India had just completed their 0-4 tour of England in 2011. By the end of that trip, they were picking chubby bowlers from Miami’s South Beach. There was much posturing of, “Wait till we get England at home,” but it did little to change the fact they had been hung, drawn and pantsed by England for an entire summer.
That the summer had started with India as the No.1 Test team just made it all the more brutal. Their older batsman – Rahul Dravid aside – had not performed. Their bowlers had fallen down, or barely stood up. And their captain played most of his epic innings in monotone press conferences.
The limited-overs series started in the bowling-friendly part of the summer, in the bowling-friendly north. This unknown kid with fierce eyes played in the only T20. He opened. He made 61. Off 39 balls.
The next game was an ODI at Chester Le Street. It was cloudier than a parody of London. The kid with the eyes was opening with Parthiv Patel. The ball was swinging and seaming. Rahane was swinging and seeing.
There were pulls, clips, straight drives, lofted balls over cover and a smack over mid-on. Rahane looked calm, confident and like every bit the sort of player Indian cricket should be going mad for in the present circumstances. He should have been the poster boy for the next generation. A domestic run-scoring machine who can conquer the moving ball in the north, beyond the wall, while playing his shots. It was the sort of score that would have sent Australian fans into Uzmania or Quincitement.
Instead India kept Rahan in his most important role, Test benchwarmer. It was as if they hadn’t seen his first-class average, and just saw him as another hitter from the IPL. They certainly didn’t see him.
Rahane was there, he was always there. His stats weren’t countered in runs, but in how many times he was out on the field giving a water bottle to a more in-favour team-mate. Even before those England innings in blue clothes he was in a squad. Rahane was in many squads. Seven. While eight players made debuts before he did.
When he finally played a Test, he was at home, playing the fourth and un-deciding match against a broken Australia. He made 7 and 1. The second dismissal was to Glenn Maxwell. To this day, Rahane averages 4 at home.
Virat Kohli has made four hundreds in Australia, but away he averages nine less than he does at home. M Vijay averages 17 less. Cheteshwar Pujara 46 less. Dhawan 51 less. And Rohit Sharma a monumental 267 less. Some are small sample sizes. Sometimes they mean nothing. But while Test cricket seems to be getting tougher to conquer away from home, Rahane does that.
Rahane’s average away from home is 48. That incudes four tours: Dale Steyn’s South Africa, Trent Boult’s New Zealand, James Anderson’s England, and Ryan Harris’ Australia. His top scores in these countries are 96, 118, 103 and 147.
The 103 at Lord’s this year gave India one of their greatest ever wins. Ishant Sharma did the glory stuff, but Rahane did the gutsy stuff. India were 145 for 7. The batting guns just disappeared. Dhawan the movie star. Pujara the future. Vijay the spine. Kohli the megastar. Unflinching. Uncompromised. Unflustered. Rahane’s eyes watch carefully, his bat pushes calmly. He falls over. He gets hit. He plays and misses. He fights and scratches. He gets India to 295.
India win by fewer than 103 runs.
R Ashwin suggested India would make 650 in this Test. Rahane would probably never make a comment like that. When he walked in, that total was more than 500 short. He scores in boundaries. And delicate threes. Drives, dabs and pulls. Lyon drops a sitter. Rahane keeps scoring. He flies past megastar Kohli. It’s not a race, but he does beat Kohli to his hundred.
Rahane keeps going. Hazlewood hits him. He hits Hazlewood hard. Johnson tries a full over of short stuff. Rahane beefs him with a pull slog then cashes in on the attempted yorker before smashing another pull shot. It’s only two excitable back-to-back sweeps that eventually get him.
The eyes. Wide. Round. Bright. Focused. They stare at the umpire. They stare at the finger.
Rahane took seven series to get off the bench. He took four series to go from waterboy to warrior.