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India vs Australia, 2nd Test: A chink in Ajinkya Rahane’s armour

India’s finest player overseas is out of his depth at home — the reason being a lack of trust in his defence against the turning ball.

Written by Sriram Veera | Bangalore |
March 3, 2017 1:27:18 am
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Ajinkya Rahane retreated deep inside the crease in Rajkot against England’s spinners. You could almost feel his suffocation. Of being trapped. There was no space to go behind without trampling on the stumps and he was reluctant to come forward. When he leaned forward, he couldn’t reach the pitch of the ball and had to lunge and reach out for the ball. Free from the pressure of having to change their lengths, the English spinners started to toss it fuller and fuller. The noose got tighter and tighter. Rahane pressed further back. A jab here, a stab there and it was clear he wasn’t in control. It wasn’t a surprise then to see him cramped for room. With forward and backward movements cut out, there was nowhere else to go. And he moved sideways to the on side — it opened up his body too much, he got into awkward positions, the bat started to come down at an angle and he was trying to wriggle free in desperation. Across-the-line swipes resulted and nervy shot selections were made. Rahane, the best Indian batsman overseas with centuries around the world, wasn’t looking at home in India.

The Tests against England revealed one weakness: a lack of trust in defence against the turning ball. No wonder the recent home record isn’t too flashy: Just one fifty in the last 10 innings at home, and that fifty too came on a flat track against Bangladesh. The lack of confidence in his defence triggered other concerns — the creeping fear of lbw or a bat-pad-catch, which has made him press back at the crease.

It chopped off one critical area from Rahane’s batting. The forward stride went out of the picture. Half-cock at the crease at best, when he isn’t pressing back, it has affected his driving. So many shots went out of the system — the drives, the nurdles off the front foot that help a batsman smother turn. Without the attacking options off the front foot, Rahane was reduced to looking for shortness in length to either cut or pull. Obviously, the international spinners weren’t going to serve such gifts on a platter too often.

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Pravin Amre, who was an excellent batsman against spin and someone who would often rush down the track to drive, explains the rationale behind Rahane’s choices. Amre has been working with Rahane for a few years now. Lately, the focus is on Rahane’s defensive technique against the spinning ball.

“With DRS, batting against spin has become more challenging. The batsmen fear that they might get lbw or push at turning deliveries half-cock. Rahane is thinking about playing more with the bat. Not get the foot across and get in the way of the bat swing. But yes, it didn’t all work out well against England but he has been working hard from there on,” Amre told The Indian Express. “If you have to defend the spinner, you have to take that stride out. Else you would be caught half-cock at the crease. Front-foot stride is critical – once that happens, driving also improves. That’s the area we have been working on.”

It’s a good idea to play back, but it’s best done when you have space to move behind. That movement allows the batsman some time to shift the weight back, get the hands moving, create his own length to punch or defend. One has seen the likes of Jacques Kallis do it in the past in India. But Rahane had almost locked himself up — from either going forward or back.

With things threatening to get out of control in the England series, there was another setback that was in store for him. Rahane was looking forward to playing his first home Test in Mumbai (against England) when he fractured his finger at the nets.

“It hurt him emotionally and also more importantly, he couldn’t lift the bat for a month almost,” said Amre. The injury denied him a chance to properly work on his batting against spin and before he knew, he was facing Bangladesh spinners and almost immediately found himself on a sandpit in Pune against the Aussies.

In the little time they had together, Amre decided to focus on getting the body position right and tighten up the defence. There was no time for large-scale changes such as getting him moving down the track.

It’s not as if Rahane doesn’t sashay down the track. In Indore, in the Test against New Zealand, he shimmied down to hit two sixes, and Amre brings up those hits to buttress his case that Rahane has it in him to be more positive against the turning ball. “I won’t be surprised if in this series itself you see him use his feet a lot more — come forward more positively and go back with more control. He is now not standing so back as he was against England. He is trying to get into better position,” Amre says.

Australia’s Mitch Marsh reckons the Bangalore pitch looks “pretty dry with cracks”. On Thursday, the groundstaff scrubbed the track dry with brushes, and there were bald patches appearing. Rahane’s job isn’t going to get easier for sure and it should be an interesting experience to see him tackle the turning ball. In the past, he has tackled challenges with great skill and character and the Bangalore Test presents him with yet another opportunity to show us his class.

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