Ajinkya Rahane had a mountain to climb when he stood in for Virat Kohli. Going beyond the courage, character, resolve and team spirit, India needed to out-think Australia on the field to mount a fightback. Sharp tactical moves became imperative.
After the 1992 World Cup win, then Pakistan captain Imran Khan was asked about Intikhab Alam’s role as the team’s coach. The legendary all-rounder praised Alam for playing a perfect second fiddle. With time, the coach’s position has gained importance in cricket. But as Team India head coach Ravi Shastri had said in 2017, the captain remained “the boss”.
Ajinkya Rahane had a mountain to climb when he stood in for Virat Kohli. Going beyond the courage, character, resolve and team spirit, India needed to out-think Australia on the field to mount a fightback. Sharp tactical moves became imperative. And it won’t be an exaggeration to say that in Melbourne and Sydney, Rahane has out-captained his Australian counterpart Tim Paine.
His latest tactical move – promoting Rishabh Pant in the batting order in the second innings in Sydney – threw open the possibility of an improbable Indian victory-push on the fifth day.
The turning point for India in the 2001 Eden Gardens epic against Australia was the decision to promote VVS Laxman at No. 3 in the second innings. Rahul Dravid was the team’s established No. 3, while Laxman was still in the process of cementing his place.
But Laxman was the team’s top-scorer in the first innings and as India followed on, then India coach John Wright floated the idea of sending him at No. 3 to capitalise on his batting rhythm. Dravid was to drop down the order at No. 6. Eventually, it was then India captain Sourav Ganguly’s call and the alteration was made. The rest was history.
Pant’s promotion to No. 5 in Sydney offered a throwback to the Eden classic. The southpaw was hit on the left elbow by a Pat Cummins bouncer while batting in the first innings and couldn’t keep wickets. He still had some pain when he batted in the second innings. It was a bold call to promote him up the order. The idea, as Rahane revealed post-match, was to have a left-right combination in the middle. It forced the Australian bowlers to change their line constantly.
Given that Rahane himself got out in the second over of Day 5, it was an attacking move, something, as it turned out, the Australians didn’t expect. Cheteshwar Pujara had dropped anchor at one end. A defensive batsman like Hanuma Vihari alongside him at that moment could have given the hosts an upper hand – Cummins and Co would have bowled virtually without any pressure of leaking runs.
Pant took the attack to the opposition. Midway into his swashbuckling 97, a thick edge flew through the vacant third slip. Paine had retreated to a defensive mode. Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin’s blockathon helped India pull off a memorable draw. But Pant’s innings had set the platform.
“It was a masterstroke to put him up there…” former Australia captain Ricky Ponting said, speaking on Unplayable Podcast.
Ashwin early into the attack at MCG
On the heels of 36 all out in Adelaide and with Australia batting first in the second Test in Melbourne, India could have been easily out of the game and the series without a few early wickets. Matthew Wade was settling in and Marnus Labuschagne had been their in-form batsman. Rahane introduced Ashwin in the 11th over. A left-hander at the crease notwithstanding, it was a brave decision, with the ball still pretty new.
Ashwin is comfortable bowling with the new ball and the reason why Rahane brought on the off-spinner was that he wanted to use the moisture on the surface. Also, after a fantastic outing in Adelaide, Ashwin had the psychological upper hand over the Australian batters.
Rahane’s decision turned out to be a tactical masterstroke. Ashwin dismissed Wade with dip and turn, followed by Steve Smith’s scalp. His proactive captaincy wrested the initiative for the visitors.
Smart use of Jadeja at SCG
Australia ended the first day in Sydney on 167/2. India had to pull things back on Day Two, and Rahane brought on Ravindra Jadeja early as he wanted Smith and Labuschagne to play against the turn. Jadeja bowled unchanged until the second new ball was taken and he had two wickets by then. The second new ball was taken straightway, Jasprit Bumrah got big on the Australian middle-order before Jadeja was brought back to cramp the lower-order for runs. The left-arm spinner returned with four wickets.
The Adelaide debacle was enough to demoralise India. To make matters worse, Kohli returned home on paternity leave, while an arm fracture ruled Mohammed Shami out of the series. India needed a strong captain to bounce back, someone who, apart from keeping the morale high, wasn’t afraid of taking bold decisions.
India picked an all-rounder to replace their best batsman in Melbourne – Jadeja for Kohli. Rahane took a similarly bold decision when he first captained India in the series decider against Australia in Dharamsala in 2017 – throwing in debutant Kuldeep Yadav at the deep end and reaping the rewards of his attacking intent. Yadav’s impact bowling and four wickets in the first innings gave India a clear edge.
Addressing an audience at the Oxford Union a few years ago, Imran Khan had said ‘a leader must not take the trodden path. You have to take on the odds.’
Rahane seems to have taken just that, and his captaincy has impressed Australian great Ian Chappell, who wrote in his ESPNcricinfo column after the second Test: “It was no surprise that Ajinkya Rahane captained India flawlessly at the MCG; anyone who saw him in charge in Dharamsala in 2017 would have recognised a man born to lead cricket teams.”
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