May 29, 2012

What, me slog?

One of the successes of the IPL this year has been Ajinkya Rahane, a batsman who's the opposite of a six-a-minute swashbuckler

Ajinkya Rahane is a bit of an anachronism. In the era of Virat Kohli, he is "shy" by his own admission. In the era of the scoop and the slog, his release strokes are over extra cover and straight down the ground. He talks about safety and patience. In T20.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Rahane has forced his way into the Indian team the old-fashioned way, through the sheer weight of first-class runs over four seasons. He is widely expected, along with Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli, to be part of India's Test line-up in the near future. But to end up competing with Chris Gayle on the run-scoring charts in IPL 2012? Considering he had a T20 average of 16.66 and a strike rate of 110 going into the tournament?

No one, Rahane included, would have expected he would end this IPL with 560 runs, including an unbeaten hundred, and 98 in Rajasthan Royals' opening game. Once he got in, the strike rate took care of itself. The hundred came at 171.66, the 98 at 148.48.

Rahane made his T20 debut before he played his first first-class game, both in 2007, but had unflattering returns in his three IPL seasons before this one, for Mumbai Indians and Royals. Why did it take him so long to have such a productive season?

"Instead of looking at it in that manner, I would say that this season was good for me because of whatever I have learnt in the last four years," he says. "That experience and the knowledge of T20 helped me this year. I also got a lot of opportunities this season, and due to a combination of all these factors was able to excel."

That he opened the innings all through this season, as opposed to just once before, also made a difference. Rahane is primarily a top-order batsman - which is probably why he feels there is plenty of time, even in a T20 game. "It appears to us that 20 overs are not much. But when you go out to bat, you realise that 20 overs is also a lot."

He has always been a free-flowing batsman, but he says that it is the patience developed batting hours and hours in first-class cricket that he has benefited from in this IPL. "You have to be very patient and focused when you play first-class cricket, and that has helped me in T20. I believe that you can succeed even in T20 if you are patient instead of panicking. If you don't panic, you can think better. This is where experience helped me."

He talks about his pre-season preparation, and there is the inevitable mention of Rahul Dravid, his Royals captain and idol. "I had done a lot of work before this IPL season, including on improvising my shots. I was batting well in our pre-season camp and in the practice matches we played. I had a hundred in the Deodhar Trophy final as well. In the camp, I was making 30-35 runs but getting out.

"I had a chat with Rahul bhai. He told me that some things happen for a reason. 'You are getting out now, but you will make a lot of runs in the IPL,' he said. 'You just ensure that you do not think too much about the runs. You are batting well, just keep that going. The runs will come.' I kept that in mind and concentrated on the basics. I guess it is probably because I kept my game simple that I was able to improvise and do whatever I had thought of doing."

While many scoop, reverse-sweep and switch-hit, those shots aren't for Rahane, who prefers to hit down the ground and over cover. "I was just backing my ability and my shots. I know what my strengths are, which shots will fetch me runs and what the safe options are. So I was focusing on all that."

The natural hitting response of a batsman is to usually slog over midwicket, not go inside-out over extra cover. Doesn't he feel like going cross-batted, especially under pressure? "Obviously these thoughts do come in your head. But as I said, I had decided that I will back my ability and my options. I kept it simple and things just kept happening."

"It appears to us that 20 overs are not much. But when you go out to bat, you realise that it is a lot"

They certainly did. Even against offspinners, against the turn, Rahane lofted over extra cover. "A lot of times, the offspinner thinks that the batsman will slog at me, but does not envisage that he could be hit in other regions."

Another favoured shot was the back-foot lofted straight punch against the spinners, his "safe" stroke. "That shot, we know, is a safe option. When you hit over the bowler, you'll get at least two, maybe even a four or a six if you hit it well. It is the safest option. I was thinking about such safe shots which can fetch me runs and where the risk involved is less.

"On many occasions, I practised, along with my coaches, Monty Desai and Zubin Bharucha, before the rest of the team did or after everyone was done. It is not that I went into the match and played those shots straightaway. I knew that the season was very important for me, and the more priority I gave to such matters, the more I would get out of cricket."

In an age where power-hitting is all around him, and only getting more prevalent, does he feel sticking to a "touch" game like his is difficult? Even someone like Rohit Sharma, who probably relies as much on timing as Rahane does, has hit 122 sixes in 115 T20 innings. Rahane has 18 in 54.

"I don't compare myself with others. I know that my competition is with myself," Rahane says. "My constant endeavour is to improve in the future. Like now, I scored 560 runs but I am not that satisfied, as in the last three-four games, I got out early. I think I could have done better. I will look to not repeat those mistakes."

The tour of West Indies in June with India A will provide him an opportunity to do that. The confidence of his IPL runs will be a boost. "IPL gives you a lot of confidence and exposure as you play against experienced international bowlers. Definitely it will help. I got to play against good attacks.

"But whatever I have done, I will look to begin afresh. New conditions, new challenge. It is a big tour. I will try to start from scratch and look to adjust as soon as possible to all three formats. This is my first trip to West Indies and I don't know how the conditions will be." As long as he plays safe and patient, he should be all right.

Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo