'I learned to retain my self-belief'
The dark navy blue Indian blazer hangs on a stand by the bed. We are in Ajinkya Rahane's room at the team hotel in Chennai on the day the Indian Test squad leaves for Australia, last December. Rahane, who had made his international debut only a few months ago in England, is happy that things are falling into place for him. He admits the prospect of playing in Australia - the pinnacle for every international cricketer - will keep him awake on the long flight to Melbourne.
The previous afternoon Rahane had been beaten by the low bounce and the skiddy pace of Kemar Roach at Chepauk off the second ball of the fifth ODI against West Indies. It was the second duck of his short career, but being in the Indian dressing room had taught Rahane to remain positive.
One of the most prolific batsmen on the domestic circuit, Rahane had been waiting for a call from the selectors. In only his second first-class season, in 2008-09, he made 1089 runs in the Ranji Trophy. The next year he was again one of the highest run-scorers, with 809 runs in Mumbai's successful defence of their title. He hit hundreds against the Australians in the tour match in Chandigarh in 2010, and followed that a week later with 191 in the second innings in the Irani Trophy.
In the summer of 2010, touring England with India A, Rahane made two centuries, but Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja got their India caps ahead of him. He grew desperate, waiting in the wings. But being in the company of domestic stalwarts and former India players Wasim Jaffer and Praveen Amre (the Mumbai coach), helped him realise the importance of patience.
"The four years I played domestic cricket I got the experience of working hard, and I also know how much more I need to work," Rahane says. "The dream has always been there to play for the Test team. I don't mind waiting for my chances, no matter how much I have to wait. Till then I will need to do my job and get the runs. That is definitely in my hands."
Mentally he was ready for the step up, which finally arrived after he returned from the Emerging Players tournament in Australia, where he had hit two centuries in the three first-class matches. It was mid-August when, one afternoon, while at home chatting with his mother, Rahane received a call from the office of the BCCI president. He was told he was flying to England as a replacement for Virender Sehwag, who was unfit.
The reality of it hit home only when people started phoning him. "I saw tears of happiness on my mom's face," Rahane recalls.
"I come from a middle-class family. They reduced expenses on other household stuff to help me with my cricket. So they had to give up on a lot to bring me to this stage. They obviously are the pillars of my strength."
When the dream of wearing the India cap was close to becoming a reality, Rahane said he was nervous, even though he knew the conditions he would be up against in England because of the trip in 2010. "I was a little nervous when I was told I would be playing the Twenty20 in Manchester," he says. But he found support from the senior players, including Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, and his Mumbai team-mate Rohit Sharma.
"When I walked in at Old Trafford the crowd's noise did make me a little nervous. But I had walked in with the mindset that the full house was trying to support me. That eased me into the situation gradually."
Duncan Fletcher, the India coach, told him he belonged at the international level. "When someone like him [Fletcher] said such encouraging things, I started feeling better."
That day Rahane walked out to open with Dravid, one of his heroes. Incidentally both men were making their Twenty20 international debuts in the match. Rahane finished as the top scorer for India, with 61 in a narrow defeat.
What did he learn on the tour? "The big difference was, I understood going forward I would need to work much harder. Because before my debut I was unknown but now the teams would study me more. So I would need to think a step ahead of the opposition and plan how I would tackle them."
Following his debut, Rahane played against England again at home, and he rates his 91 in Mohali as his best knock, a performance that earned him the Man-of-the-Match award. "I was nervous before that match because in the previous two matches I had got out early. In Mohali, Dhoni bhai called me and told me not to think too much. He asked me to express myself freely, just the way I did in England. So I went in with the idea of following my instincts."
The quality of bowling and the mindset of international players, Rahane says, is the difference between the highest level and domestic cricket. A good example of that came in England, where, against quality fast bowlers like Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Steve Finn, he was constantly on the hop, tackling searing pace and bounce. "At that level if you can stay mentally strong and tough, it will be beneficial. Also, if you can handle every situation calmly, it matters a lot."
Rahane kept those lessons in mind when he landed in Australia. But things did not turn out the way he would have liked them to. In the two practice matches ahead of the Test series, in three innings, Rahane managed only 18 runs. "I was disappointed and was sitting in a corner in Canberra. The coach and some of the senior players came to me and said it was a matter of making adjustments. That and a matter of one good innings would help me get on the track."
As the Indian team got a hammering over the next two months, Rahane and the rest of the reserves awaited their turn. For Rahane there wasn't one. He channelled his frustration by coming out early for training sessions or staying back late after them to hit balls along with Rohit.
Rahane has a safety-first approach to life, a contrast to the vulnerability apparent in someone like Rohit, who is clearly the more talented. While Rohit likes driving cars and motorbikes, Rahane prefers sitting in his room and reading books on meditation. "That was one way I kept myself calm in Australia and retained my focus."
Senior players talked to Rahane about the difference in the bounce, even if the bowlers pitched lengths similar to those in India. "The biggest thing I learned is how to get used to the conditions in Australia. The shots to play on those wickets and the right kind of approach and how soon to get adjusted to those conditions - those were the things I tried learning in the two months I was there."
He was disappointed that he was not retained in the CB Series squad. "I was thinking I could have been picked, but I would not let it affect me. I told myself I should only focus on playing domestic matches and perform in the important matches and come back into the reckoning. I took it as a challenge."
According to Jaffer, Rahane needs to create more opportunities for himself to stay in the fray for a Test spot. "He needs to stay focused and grab his opportunity whenever he gets a chance," Jaffer says. He believes it will be "very important" that Rahane performs in the IPL and on A tours to keep his name on top of the list.
After Australia, Rahane has played as many matches as he could, including for his company, Indian Oil Corporation, and even local club matches in Mumbai. Though scratchy in the early stages of the Vijay Hazare Trophy, he scored a vital half-century against Karnataka in the semi-final to help Mumbai make the final. He followed that with a match-winning century for West Zone in the Deodhar Trophy final.
"I said, fine, I did not get opportunities on the Australian tour but I got to learn quite a few things. I learned to have a fighting attitude and retain my self-belief." Virtues that are important for a player with an Indian blazer in his wardrobe.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo