Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
Ajinkya Rahane brings with him a certain calm to the wicket. In the second ODI, in Cardiff, India were still in a bit of a free-fall when Rahane's turn to bat arrived. Shikhar Dhawan had edged outside off, an anxious-to-dictate Virat Kohli had got out for a duck, and Rohit Sharma - 6 off 21 at the time - was struggling. James Anderson got an extended spell, Rohit played some desperate shots and got away with them, but calmly and without anyone noticing it was Rahane who provided India some momentum. He didn't feel the need to dance down the wicket to cover movement or hit out, he found singles easily, and reached 40 at nearly a run a ball.
This is when Aakash Chopra tweeted: "Rahane has reached that stage in ODI when he's been guilty of throwing it away...hope he changes it today. Get a big one...a really big one!"
Five minutes later, Rahane played a forward-defensive to the offspin of James Tredwell. From round the wicket the ball went with the angle and beat the outside edge, which is fair enough, but Rahane had let his back foot drag out of the crease. That is soft for a good player of spin. Not for the first time in his ODI career had Rahane looked good. Not for the first time he threw it away. The consequence is an average of 26, which is not good enough for a top-four batsman. It also means he is not batting long enough to score the quick late runs, which reflects in a career strike rate of 73.
Tweeted Chopra: "'Looks brilliant till he plays a lazy shot'--Rahane's ODI career so far. Not fulfilling his potential. Disappointing."
Chopra speaks for everyone who has followed Rahane's career keenly. It began on the horror England tour of 2011. He was one of the few bright spots of a grim winless trip for India. He has moved down the order since then but all of his 31 innings have been played inside the top four. He has never stayed unbeaten. He has made starts every second innings - 16 of his 31 innings have been 20 or more. Only three of those starts have gone past 60.
Over the last three years, since Rahane's debut, his rate of failure of converting starts into really big innings is the highest. Thirteen of his 16 innings over 20 have ended under 60. Corresponding numbers for Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mohammad Hafeez and Ian Bell are 29 out of 38, 23 out of 32 and 19 out of 28. The really good players over the period have been in another sphere. Of the 41 times Kumar Sangakkara has crossed 20, he has been dismissed for under 60 only 20 times, Virat Kohli 16 out of 34 times. Rahane will want to get away from Bell and Hafeez, and closer to Kohli and Sangakkara.
What frustrates Chopra and others is that Rahane gets out softly. There are two kinds of soft dismissals. One to a poor ball that does not deserve a wicket. These are usually freak occurrences. Rahane is not falling too often to those. Then there are those small errors of judgements that you do not expect of a batsman who has got himself in. Least of all a Mumbai batsman. Rahane is as Mumbai as they come. Middle-class Marathi boy lugging his bags in trains to get a hit, surely Rahane knows to put a heavy price on his wicket? It shows at the start of his innings, but somewhere in the middle the concentration dips.
The worrying aspect is that this tendency to throw away starts is not limited to ODI cricket, even though Rahane has scored two centuries in his 19 Test innings to date. During India's disastrous downturn in the Tests, Rahane was one of the batsmen who did not look out of form or out of sorts. Yet he kept finding out ways to get out.
Since his Lord's century, he had scores of 54, 52 not out, 24, 1, 0 and 4. That 24, at Old Trafford, when he had weathered the storm on the first morning, once again bringing some calm to the Indian dressing room, will rankle, for he fell to a loose drive - by the standards of the situation and the conditions - minutes before lunch. India had nearly turned 8 for 4 into 62 for 4, but that wicket just before lunch punctured the comeback.
Tests will give Rahane more time, but the ODIs, and the World Cup, are almost here and now. MS Dhoni has always said he wants his team to have had the experience of various pressure situations that arise in ODIs before they go into the World Cup. He has always aimed at giving them at least 75-80 caps each before the big event. It will not be possible with Rahane, who has 31 right now, and has two-and-a-half series between now and the World Cup.
Yet Rahane has shown enough promise to have become a solid contender. Now he wouldn't want to carry this big-score bogey with him to the World Cup.