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Ajinkya Rahane - conquering the middle-order

Indian batsman describes his transition from top-three to No. 5 and 6

He is part of India’s latest batch of batting riches. With consistent performances overseas, he has cemented his place in India’s Test middle order. And he is one of the more consistent performers in the IPL.

At 26, Ajinkya Rahane has many reasons to believe he is a superstar. But he doesn’t.

Shy, short, skinny and soft-spoken. Ajinkya will not catch your eye in a crowd. He will walk past you, quietly, without giving out any aura or charisma.

But watch him bat on a cricket pitch, trying to get his team out of a hole in trying conditions, facing a bunch of daunting, giant fast bowlers and he will make you take notice. The steel in his eyes, the assurance in his every move and the air of confidence in his demeanour are unmistakable.

Ajinkya doesn’t believe that the world rotates around him. He just ensures he plays his part in ensuring that the rotation is smooth.

If the match-winning century at Lord’s was a stamp of reassertion of his batting skills, the 52 not-out in a losing cause at the Ageas Bowl was a testimony to his temperament.

Used to bat in the top-order for Mumbai all his life, Ajinkya has taken to the No. 5 and 6 positions in the Test team like fish to water.

In a chat with
BCCI.TV, the Rahane spoke about his transition from top to middle order and the men who have been his inspiration.

You have predominantly been a top-order batsman all your life. How did the decision of making yourself available as a middle order batsman come about?

When I started playing first-class cricket, I opened the batting for two years and did quite well. Then the Mumbai team management thought that my batting at No. 3 will be beneficial for the team. I gave a positive response to their call and batted at that position for the next few years. When I got picked for the Indian team, I was there as a middle-order batsman. I had never batted at No. 5 before and it was a very new thing for me. But I took it as a fresh challenge and tried my best to adapt to the role.

What was the most difficult part of making the transition to the middle-order?

The most challenging aspect for me was to train my mind. Your technique doesn’t change with your batting position but the mindset does. I didn’t play any matches for the first two years I was with the Indian team. So I got a lot of time to just sit back and observe the senior players. I watched and tried to learn from how the top seven batsmen prepared before a match depending on their batting position and with what mindset they went out to bat. I knew that if I wanted to play for India, I always have to keep my mind open and be prepared to bat at any position. I was so lucky to have people like Sachin paaji, Rahul bhai and Laxman paaji around to observe and learn from. So, those two years were very educative and helpful for me.

Batting in the top-order is very proactive while coming in at 5 or 6 is more reactive as you have to bat according to the situation. How has it worked for you?

That’s the most challenging aspect of batting at No. 5 – you go in to bat with different situations all the time and you have to alter your game according to the scoreboard situation. In this series so far I have had to come in and bat with the responsibility of steadying the team innings. My approach has been to give the initial few overs to the bowlers, respect them and get in. Once I score 25-30 runs, I start playing my normal game. I always look for runs because if you are at the wicket for a long time without scoring many runs, you let the game drift away and give the opposition an upper hand. So, scoring runs is as important as staying at the wicket. That is how I approached my Lord’s innings as well.

One similarity between opening and batting at 5 is that you are mostly facing the new ball. Did that make the transition relatively smoother?

It is an advantage. Having opened, when I face the second new ball batting at 5 or 6, I know exactly how to negotiate and also take advantage of the new ball. The top-order experience has helped me in that regards.

Although you have grown up idolizing Rahul Dravid, your role in the Test team is what VVS Laxman used to play. Have you taken a leaf out of his book?

When batting in top three, you have to get ready very quickly if you’re batting first or after you return from fielding. When batting at No. 5 you have more time in your hands. I noticed how Laxman paaji made the optimal use of the time. He used to come to the dressing room, relax, take a shower and take a brief nap. I learnt from him how important it is that during this time when you are waiting for your turn to bat, you don’t over-think things and stress your mind out. It is important to switch off and go out to bat with a fresh mind when your turn comes. I did take that from him – sometimes, when there is a bit extra time, I try to sleep for 10-15 minutes. It helps me de-stress and rejuvenate my mind.

Tell us something we don’t know about how you prepare for a game.

I keep watching the videos of all the great innings played Rahul bhai, Sachin paaji and Laxman paaji. I watch how they approached a pressure situation and got the team out of the jail. I draw motivation from watching their innings. For instance, now that we are in England, I watch some of the innings they played here. I watch how they countered the conditions and what kind of shots they played. I learn a lot from that and also get motivated to emulate their performances.

Another important aspect of batting at 5 and 6 is batting with the lower order batsmen. Is that something you’ve had to work on?

We always knew that guys like Bhuvi and Ishant can bat. In this series, the bowling coach has encouraged them a lot to improve their batting and we have seen the result. I have realized that the most important thing about batting with the bowlers is to show them that you trust them. If they feel like you believe in them, their self belief will rise too. In cricket the importance of the ninth and tenth wicket partnerships is very high. It frustrates the opposition and gives your team a mental edge. That moral edge can change the game.

Do bowlers carry the confidence of their bowling performance into their batting? Do you understand that as a batsman? How does your approach change?

It does happen that when a bowler does well with the ball, he is that much more confident when he comes in to bat. But that depends a lot on what kind of individual he is. Some guys just switch off after the bowling innings and start afresh with the bat while others carry the mindset of their bowling performance into their batting. Generally, when a bowler walks in to bat, you can make out from his body language what kind of mindset he is in and what his confidence level is. Your instincts tell you how to deal with him – whether you need to say a few words or just let him be.

How crucial is patience when batting with the bowlers?

You absolutely need patience when you’re batting with the bowlers and the earlier you learn how to read them and the situation, the better it will be. For instance, when I got out for 96 in South Africa (second Test, Durban, 2013), a century was on my mind. I was thinking about getting those four runs as quickly as possible because I was batting with the tail. I played that slog shot and got out on 96. That’s when I realized that I need to understand how to bat with the tailenders. That’s when I started watching the videos of Dhoni bhai and Mike Hussey to learn how they carry the tailend batsmen with them. I realized how special this game of cricket is. In this game you have to respect everyone, whether it is your opposition or your batting partner who walks in to bat at No. 11. If you try to be over smart and don’t respect someone, the game brings you back to the ground.

How frustrating is it when you’re gritting your teeth out, digging in and wickets keep tumbling at the other end?

I don’t get frustrated because I know that every man is trying his best for the team. Also, in this game, a batsman needs to make only one mistake to get out but the bowler has five more balls in the over if he bowls a bad one. When I bat, I take the responsibility of the entire team on me. I owe it to every member of the team including the support staff for the hard work they put into preparing me for the match. It is also my responsibility to bat for those team mates of mine who are not doing well. So, when the others get out, there is no frustration, only stronger determination to do well on their behalf.

Which was the innings that made you feel like you belong to this level?
For me it was my 51 and 96 in Durban and also the 47 I got in the first innings in Johannesburg. That’s when I felt that I can handle any bowling attack in the world.

How special was Lord’s 2014?

At Lord’s I got to know what it feels like to win a Test match overseas. It was such an emotional feeling for all of us and it was so special. You play for moments like that. That is the feeling that makes every struggle and difficulty worthwhile.

Do you get nervous every time before going in to bat?

No matter how many Test matches you have played, you’re always a little nervous before a game and before going in to bat. And I believe it is important to have that nervousness because that means that you care about this game and you respect it.

Features and Interviews

Team India’s Man Utd tour

Indian cricketers spend their Sunday at the Old Trafford football ground

A bus carrying a sports team arrived in the premises of the Old Trafford football ground. The players got down and grouped at the entrance of the stadium and walked in through the tunnel to the sound of Fanfare for Rocky music.

It wasn’t the Manchester United football team. It was the Indian cricket team.

The Men in Blue decided to spend their day off on Sunday in Manchester learning about one of the greatest sporting legacies, with a tour to the Manchester United club stadium and academy.

The team was led by captain MS Dhoni, a football enthusiast and an ardent Man U fan, paid full attention to every word and every piece of information uttered by the tour guide.

The tour began from the Man Utd dressing room where the jerseys of the current team members hung to mark their respective spots in the room.
Then came the time to enter the arena. The theatre of dreams. The pitch where the Red Devils show their daredevilry amidst over 67,000 adoring fans.

The Indian cricketers could relate to it. But here, they were just a bunch of boys learning about the historic football club and appreciating the tradition built over 100 years. They were happy to be away from the intense spotlight and the media. However, couldn’t escape the attention of their fans. They didn’t mind signing a few autographs and posing for a few pictures.

They gathered for group photos in the Man Utd dugout and were given a special permission to set foot on the pitch. The skipper took time to get himself clicked near the home team dugout, and the others followed suit.

While the rest of the boys soaked in the atmosphere and captured the moments in their camera, Dhoni and Gautam Gambhir had long discussions with the authorities who were showing the team around. The two senior-most members of Team India showed tremendous interest and asked a lot of questions.

The next stop was the Man Utd merchandise mega store. India’s national cricketers bought jerseys, caps and jumpers.

After shopping, the team was taken to visit the Munich tunnel – a place where the club has immortalized its players who lost their lives in the air tragedy of 1958. As the guide walked them through the commemorative plaques and the eternal flame, while giving out the details of the fatalities and survivors, the playfulness made way for gloom.

The cheers were back when they were taken to a football pitch to have a few kicks in the net. Dhoni the wicketkeeper turned into a goalkeeper as his team mates tested his skills with a barrage of straight kicks.

From the stadium, the Indian team was taken to the Man Utd academy and training facility, where they were told how kids are groomed into the football superstars they go on to become.

Some of the boys became nostalgic as they remembered their own journey to Team India.