Unexpected captaincy offers Rahane ODI revival
This has been a funny old week in Ajinkya Rahane's life. As the three players with captaincy experience at international level, and other candidates in Rohit Sharma and R Ashwin were all rested, it left only two options: Harbhajan Singh and Rahane. In that light, despite boasting a captaincy experience of just two matches in senior representative cricket, Rahane is not a surprising choice, but the irony is hard to miss. A week ago, Rahane struggled to find a place in the starting XI in Bangladesh. Now, he is going to captain India in ODIs and Twenty20 internationals.
This is a bit like Suresh Raina, who was dropped last year only to come back straight as a captain in the second-string squad that toured Bangladesh, but Raina has always enjoyed the captain's backing while an aspect of Rahane's game was recently criticised in public.
During the press conference where the team was announced, the chairman of selectors, Sandeep Patil, was reminded time and again of Dhoni's comments on Rahane during the Bangladesh tour. Basically, Dhoni believes Rahane is a good ODI opener and a good middle-order ODI batsman when the pitches are quick, but that he cannot take ones and twos in the middle order on slower pitches.
Since Rohit Sharma has earned the right to open the innings by putting his hand up when India dropped Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, and then scoring two double-centuries and two centuries in Australia from that position, Rahane has to wait or become adept on slower pitches when facing older balls.
Patil, though, kept refusing to endorse the view, or oppose it. He would not even say what he thought of the team selection in Bangladesh, except that he and his panel had nothing to do with it. "As I have made it clear, I would like to again say our job is to pick the best possible combination (of 14 or 15 or 16)," Patil said. "The final XI and whatever they (the captains and players) say during the tour, it is left to the players and the team management."
Forget Rahane not being a regular in the ODI side. Patil went a step ahead and said the batsman was somebody they could see in the leadership role, and that this was a test ride for Rahane the captain. "If five of us have decided to give responsibility to Mr Ajinkya Rahane, the five of us are confident of his ability," Patil said. "We want him to do well. We would also like to judge him at the same time.
"We are happy the way his career has shaped up. He is one of the most consistent batsmen we have. That's why we want to see this side of him. We have given him this opportunity. We will back him in every way."
By all accounts, Dhoni's comments on Rahane have been an aberration. Rahane's team-mates, Dhoni himself included, are known to be fans of his batting, selflessness and hard work. From the moment Rahane took on Mitchell Johnson in the Boxing Day Test, Virat Kohli - who was under the pump and playing loose shots after indulging in verbals - has been a firm backer. Rohit has said publicly that he wishes to emulate Rahane's work ethic. In the rain-affected Test in Fatullah earlier this month, Rahane went after quick runs to facilitate a declaration, sacrificing a century even though the Test was not going to produce a result anyway.
This is different, though. This is a format Rahane will admit he is yet to master. This will be a good chance for him to start correcting that. It will not be a soft un-challenging launch. Zimbabwe might not be the strongest opposition, but the inexperience of the India side means Rahane will be stretched. However, he will not be bogged down by it.
For once, he will get a chance to choose his own slot and try to score big runs there. In a transitional phase in Indian cricket, this is a big opportunity. Patil and friends will be watching and judging.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo