Ajinkya Rahane answers India’s call again but team should be careful

Most of us know that Sunil Gavaskar’s highest Test score is 236 (not out). But what I’m willing to bet few realise, or remember, is that Gavaskar batted at No. 4 in that innings. It was the only innings he would play in that position.
In today’s hyper-connected media world, there would have been an instant debate about where Gavaskar should bat. He was, obviously, one of the best openers (if not the best) in the world. But suddenly here were 236 arguments for him to bat in the middle order and shore it up, especially since Dilip Vengsarkar aside, the batting from No 3 to No. 6 was relatively light.
Gavaskar, of course, simply went back to opening in his next Test. Opening was always what he did best, which logically, was therefore also in the team’s interest.
The same logic applies to Sachin Tendulkar’s refusal to bat lower down the order in one-day cricket too. Opening was what he did best, so placing him anywhere else in the line-up would have reduced his value to the team.
This is why India needs to be careful about how they handle Ajinkya Rahane, who made his fourth Test century batting at No. 3 at the P Sara Oval on Sunday. This is Rahane’s first Test batting at one-down – he was out caught in the slips for four in the first innings – but he spent the vast majority of his Ranji Trophy career for Mumbai batting in the top 3, both at one-down and as an opener.
It has been a different story in Test cricket. India needed Rahane in the middle order and he has obliged. He made his debut at No. 6, a position at which he had never previously batted in first-class cricket. Twenty-two of his 32 innings have come at No. 5 but he also batted once at No. 7, where he made his maiden Test century against New Zealand in February, 2014. He has, at least statistically, succeeded at them all, averaging over 40 at every position.
That’s the thing about Rahane, who has turned out to be a consummate team man. He will do whatever he has to do to be in the team and attempt to make the best of the situation. It’s how he has been brought up.
“My team management asked me to bat at No. 3 in this Test and I gave them a positive response,” he told Sony Six after the day’s play. “It is important to be open minded and I feel you should think from the team’s perspective first and then your individual success.”
Rahane also worked with Sanjay Bangar, India’s batting coach, after getting dismissed cheaply in the first innings.
“When you bat at No, 3, it is important to play as close to your body as possible. In the second innings, I was looking to play close to my body and take my time.”
His century today was the type of innings India needed – calm and patient. As Rahane already indicated, he took practically no risks – he had struck just seven boundaries when he reached 100 from 212 balls – preferring to ease the ball into gaps for ones and twos (there were 60 singles and 13 twos in his 126).
It is the sort of innings you cannot imagine Rohit Sharma, the de facto No. 3 when the series started, ever playing. It was, presumably, Rohit’s failures in the first Test that led to Rahane coming in at No. 3 in the second.
But India should resist the temptation to shoe-horn Rahane wherever the team has a gap. The question that appears to have been asked so far in his career is what does the team need? But a better question might be how do we get the best out of Rahane? He may have told Sony Six his preferred position to bat is “anywhere”, but that’s because he is accommodating to a fault.
Just because he is willing and able to be moved up and down the order isn’t a good enough reason to do it. Batsmen benefit from batting in a settled spot in the line-up. It allows them to become specialists rather than generalists, and reduces the variables they have to combat.
Rahane’s ability to thrive so far in his career without that certainty is an anomaly, and likely a temporary one at that. Considering his first-class experience at No. 3, his mental toughness and his eagerness to learn from mistakes, one-down could well be the best spot for him. But that’s something for the team and player to work out between them.
There are advantages to having a jack of all trades in the batting line-up. But we shouldn’t forget the second half of that chestnut is “master of none”.
As for Gavaskar’s sole innings at No. 4, well, he came in with India 0 for 2. He might as well have opened.