Rahane needs more versatility in ODIs
Thursday night - the first ODI - had all the hiccups of a blind date. India were awkward, tongue tied and struggled to find things in common with an unexpectedly fiery Bangladesh. Changes were promised for the next tryst, and like those made to impress a partner after a bad first date, some were readily noticeable. Leaky fast bowlers were offloaded. The bowling was spin heavy and dressed in its best.
And Ajinkya Rahane was dropped. Was that the proverbial deal breaker? India's batting has wanted for stability and on Sunday Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli understood that during their partnership. MS Dhoni clung onto his wicket to provide the best he could. But this isn't the endlessly populated Indian batting order of old. Batsmen at nos. 5, 6, 7 and lower haven't contributed for a long time.
It would be simplistic to put a loss so emphatic down to one reason. Unless it read: Bangladesh dumped India, with a Mustafizur Rahman smiley face. Still, it was difficult to arrive at a reason for Rahane's ejection, and conversely easy to kick up a tantrum about it.
Rahane seems to do all the right things. Heck, he barely indulges himself in the nets. The steadfast straight bat answering the ball every time actually ends up being funny. You know that this is practice, that he is setting up for a game situation, but come on, not one release shot when the other two batting beside him were indulging in skipping down the track or reverse sweeping?
But that is how Rahane has grown into a world-class batsman in Tests. Not too many from the subcontinent play 14 of their first 15 Tests abroad and brandish three centuries and an average of 47. Take into account the range of conditions he's encountered - the pace and bounce in South Africa, the movement in New Zealand, the hostility of the Australian and English summer - and the class of the batsman becomes evident.
There was a sound explanation for benching him from the second ODI in Mirpur, though - Rahane's ability to cope with limited-overs cricket's need for speed.
"We all felt that Ajinkya would do really well as a third opener," Dhoni said after India lost the series. "Or, we have time now, we can play around with him. He needs pace. We have seen that he plays a lot better when there is pace on a wicket. Whenever he has played at No. 4 or No. 5, if the wicket is slow, then he struggles to rotate the strike freely. Especially when he is just starting his innings, he has a bit of trouble. It is not easy."
Quite true. Only seven of Rahane's 54 innings in ODIs have been over a run-a-ball. And only twice has he done so from the middle order, possibly the most dynamic positions in cricket: 10 for 2 calls for circumspection while simultaneously keeping the opposition from subduing your team, 200 for 3 gives you the license hit in the air like you just don't care. But both scenarios require a batsman with the ability to pick up singles regularly.
Dhoni was able to when he went out amid the baying Mirpur crowd at Rahane's No. 4 position. That bottom-hand heavy technique was designed to fit balls into gaps. Then his fitness and running comes into play, dabbing around the corner and turning it into twos. Once sufficiently set, his power game would pull the team through to the finish. The last part of that equation, however, has gone missing in Dhoni's game, but it does indicate that separate and specific skills need to come together to make a good middle-order batsman. And when any of them are in disarray, you are in trouble.
Rahane did display the necessary skills at the World Cup, when he cracked 79 off 60 balls at 131.66 against South Africa, his quickest innings so far. Another stumbling block is that he is a specialist opener learning to bat down the order in international cricket. At the top, there is a little more time to ease in and lots more time to catch up. But when you are whisked into the middle having to rebuild after a poor start or needing to capitalise on a good one, time is against you. So perhaps the solution is to use Rahane as an opener?
Dhoni is not so keen and had another sound explanation for it: "If you see, Rohit is ideally a middle-order batsman, but for India he opens. Jinx generally opens but for India he is batting in the middle. It is a difficult one. When we needed an opener, Rohit put his hand up, he took that opportunity, unless he wants to go down you don't want to do that. It is his position and he has earned it. Ajinkya might have to wait."
Aggression has been India's watchword. It's a safe one and usually appeases fans and media alike, who can often be high-maintenance to labour the dating analogy. Cheteshwar Pujara was deemed surplus to the Test team via that logic. And Rahane's been told he needs to buck up now. Tough love can be understood, and players of such caliber should find ways to adapt.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo