Ajinkya Rahane has credited the collective leadership that he shared with vice-captain Rohit Sharma and senior players Cheteshwar Pujara and R Ashwin for India being able to come back from behind in the absence of regular captain Virat Kohli and take the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with a 2-1 series win in Australia. All four players, Rahane says, took greater responsibility upon themselves to instill belief and confidence in an inexperienced India team.
Rahane took over the captaincy when Kohli went home on paternity leave following India's defeat in the first Test in Adelaide, where they were bowled out for 36 in the second innings. Rahane's first message to the dressing room was clear: the Adelaide defeat was a closed chapter.
"I told them that topic should not be discussed at all," Rahane told Sakal, a leading Marathi daily. "The fact that we got all out for 36 is not any mistake. We should just accept it and move on. No point going in depth and thinking about it because the [next Test] match was immediately starting in three days. My only message was: it happened in one hour. They [Australia] played good cricket. Such things happen once in a century. The faster we accept this happened and move on, that is good for us."
Rahane also told his players that it made no difference to him if people outside were writing India off, and that it shouldn't bother the other players either, going into the second Test in Melbourne. "It is a good opportunity for us to stay and play as one. Whatever the result, especially after the Melbourne Test or at the end of the Test series, does not matter. Outcome is the last thing. What I wanted was we should come together and play as one, that was my priority."
Sharma, who played the last two Tests, Pujara and Ashwin were Rahane's three key sounding boards. All four players are close friends on and off the field having begun their international careers at roughly the same time. Their closeness allowed them to talk openly and help each other.
How Rahane gave confidence to Ashwin and Pujara
While Kohli brings the team together with his intensity and energy, Rahane prefers doing it with a quiet word shared with his team-mates. In the Indians' first warm-up match against Australia A, Ashwin made 8 and 5. According to Rahane, the bowling allrounder was worried about his batting - he had come into the tour with just two 30-plus scores in his last 19 Test innings.
"Our discussion started from the [first] practice match itself," Rahane said. "Ashwin got out early and was sitting alone. I told Ashwin, please do not take tension about your batting. There are times when you think too much about your batting. His record as a batsman is pretty good. When things are not going well, obviously you start brooding about your batting not going well. I told him, you just focus on your bowling.
"With your bowling you can win us matches. He bowled well and I feel that reflected in his batting [later in the series]. My responsibility was to get his focus on his bowling. He bowled well and that confidence showed in his batting."
Rahane said he explained to Ashwin that the more "desperate" he was to do well with the bat, the more disappointed he would get if he failed. "Desperation does not work. I told him to play 40-50 balls while batting without thinking about it. And that is what happened. I did not say much to him. All credit should go to Ashwin. I told him, too: your bowling is going so good and consequently, mentally, you are very relaxed and that is why you are batting well [now]. And where we wanted him, he did perform [with the bat] in Sydney."
Batting with a bad back, Ashwin helped India save the Sydney Test with an unbeaten 39 off 128 balls.
Pujara was another key match-winner who received a quiet word of support from Rahane when voices in the media including former players and captains were questioning his scoring rate. Pujara faced 928 balls across the series, wearing Australia's bowlers down cumulatively, and his final-day half-centuries proved crucial to India saving the Sydney Test and winning in Brisbane.
"I told Pujara, you play your game," Rahane said. "You don't change your game bilkul (at all). Others will play around you."
'Take responsibility but enjoy it without pressure'
As a captain Rahane is yet to lose a Test match. He is a calm character at most times, and during the Australia series he made sure to remind himself to continue enjoying the game when he took over the captaincy, and not let himself get bogged down by the pressure of the responsibility. "I told them we are two or three seniors in the team. That does not mean we have to take the pressure. Let's enjoy our cricket, enjoy our batting. And then we will take the others along with us. Many times what happens is when you say there is responsibility then you put pressure on yourself. In my mind I knew we had to take the responsibility: but enjoy it while you take it, not with pressure."
That joy and freedom is what Rahane said enabled him to bat himself into a "zone" during his 112 in India's first innings in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, which allowed the visitors to take vital lead and eventually win the Test. "That innings in Melbourne I was enjoying as a batsman. I was enjoying the pressure situation. I have walked in to bat many times in the past when India were 20 for 3 or 40 for 3, but the situation in Melbourne was totally different. I told myself while batting: "chal (go on), you enjoy every ball. Enjoy each situation. Enjoy every run. What has to happen will happen." Because of that I went into the zone while batting."
According to Rahane, by the time India entered 2021 with the series level, he felt more confident also because he found support from his deputy, Sharma, who had missed the first two Tests while completing rehab on a hamstring injury picked up during the IPL. Having been team-mates since the age-group days in Mumbai cricket, Rahane and Sharma had complete trust in each other. Rahane admitted that Sharma played a big hand in sharing leadership duties. "The big advantage is Rohit's experience. My job became easier, since if I could not pay attention to every player, I would ask Rohit to deal with that.
"Having played together so much cricket, if we felt any of the players in the Indian dressing room was down, we thought how we could make that person stand up and perform. Hence we could easily discuss such things."
'We talk about cricketing gods - it is there somewhere'
Over the course of the series, India lost a number of key players to injury. By the time India landed in Brisbane, their options had dwindled to nearly zero, and they eventually picked a five-man bowling attack whose most experienced member was playing his third Test match. After the series victory, Ravi Shastri, India's had coach, had praised Rahane for remaining calm while handling such an inexperienced line-up. How did he do it?
"I felt that there is an opportunity somewhere in all this," Rahane said. "As a player we always aspire to play for the country. So I told them that you cannot get any bigger opportunity than this. If we do good here as a team, what will happen in the future we cannot even imagine. All those who got the opportunity, all of them did well. And, importantly, they did well because there was no pressure on them. They could play freely.
"As a captain I was feeling bad that some players had missed out [due to injury], but I also thought whoever comes in, it was a big opportunity for them. Whatever the resources were available, how we could give them confidence and make them help the team do well was my main aim. Again, the result was not the motive: win or loss was not in my mind. The only thing in my mind was play good cricket and give them [Australia] a fight on the ground. Because of that only the result has come. There is some supreme power somewhere. We gave respect to cricket. We talk about cricketing gods - it is there somewhere. It was surreal and a fairytale ending."