Using the f-word to succeed
Two years ago Mumbai coach Praveen Amre got bad press for backing a rookie called Ajinkya Rahane. The detractors, including the selectors at the time, said Rahane was too flashy: a fine talent but fit only to make a swift 50. In their eyes the diminutive Rahane was never meant for the big league, but Amre stood his ground.
"They thought he did not have the ability for the next level but I always believed he was good. Every hundred he scored this season was when the team needed it," Amre said of his protégé, who is now the leading run-getter in Ranji Super League this season.
Alll eyes will be on Sachin Tendulkar when Mumbai play Saurasthra in the semi-finals, but Rahane will look to score the 24 runs he needs to reach the 1000-run mark for the season. He is the joint leader for the most number of centuries (both he and Cheteshwar Pujara have four) and has been involved in six 100-plus partnerships, including the 335-run stand with Jaffer against Hyderabad, a second-wicket record for Mumbai that surpassed the previous best of 291, which Ghulam Parker and Guru Gupte achieved against Tamil Nadu at Chepauk in 1981.
In his debut first-class season last year Rahane scored 487 in seven matches. Ask him what changed and he answers with the f-word: focus. It is what he repeats to himself when he bats, and when he talks to his coach, captain and seniors.
"My focus has increased in terms of doing well for Mumbai so I try to apply myself more now and focus on being in the present and nothing else," Rahane said while sitting on the porch of his apartment in the north-central suburb of Mulund in Mumbai. His forehead is still glistening with sweat from his second practice session of the day - a half hour knock-down at the local cricket ground. In the morning he trained with the Mumbai squad at the Brabourne stadium for a couple of hours, which was followed by a 90-minute local train ride back home, a quick lunch and then more batting.
"If I'm doing well I want to keep the rhythm. It motivates me; otherwise I have noted that I tend to slip off the pedal."
Rahane's size is similar to the short heavyweights Mumbai has produced in the past - Dilip Sardesai, Sunil Gavaskar, Vijay and Sanjay Manjrekar, Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli - but is not in that league yet. He has never met any of the above except Tendulkar, who is a role model.
Recently, midway into the Ranji campaign, Tendulkar shared a few moments with Rahane. "He told me you are doing well and are now confident, but don't get over-confident or under-confident. This might sound ordinary but coming from someone like Sachin, it is very, very important."
Just like his team-mate Dhawal Kulkarni, who has lead Mumbai's bowling attack admirably and is among the top five bowlers of the season, Rahane, too, has been one of the lynchpins for Mumbai. Both are 20, aggressive, and hungry for more success.
Unlike Jaffer, who caresses his strokes, Rahane goes hard at the ball when playing his shots. A predominantly off-side player, Rahane now concentrates on playing in the V along the ground. But bowl short at him and he will punish you immediately. His aggression is evident even in the field, where he is often seen egging on his more laidback teammates.
Along with Amre, Jaffer has been a source of inspiration for Rahane. Both play for Indian Oil Corporation and in the last few years they have developed an unshakeable bond and an understanding that has helped Rahane fast-track his progress.
In last season's Duleep Trophy match against the England Lions, facing an attack that included Monty Panesar, Steve Kirby and Liam Plunkett, Rahane began aggressively and reached a point where he was on top of the bowlers but could have easily lose his way. The usually reticent Jaffer sensed this and walked up to him to offer timely advice.
"He did well to keep a tab on what should be done and not and that helped me get those big runs ," Rahane said. "It is nice that he does not shout but at the same time is appreciative." The duo put on another record partnership of 342 for the second wicket - this time for West Zone - breaking the previous best of 288 by Anushuman Gaekwad and Sanjay Manjrekar against North Zone in 1987-88.
Responsibility comes with experience and so it is with Rahane, who admits to having played without any caution in his debut year. "'Let's hit a boundary', that was my aim. But now I want to perform for the team."
Amre appreciates and rewards hard work and sincerity, qualities he feels Rahane posseses in abundance. "Whatever suggestion I gave he was open to it," Amre said. "When I was India A coach, he was a failure [and] could not grab the opportunity. But when I became the coach of Mumbai, we worked more on the mental side and chalked out a plan. It was not only skills but he was thinking differently."
Rahane has now omitted premeditated strokes from his batting and is working hard on being balanced at the time of the delivery. "I can adjust at this age. We now constantly work on the figure nine position (standing in the shape of the number 9 while playing a shot). It helps as I can now play the shot into the area I want to hit."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo