Ajinkya Rahane Should Bat at the Top of the Order for India

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Ajinkya Rahane Should Bat at the Top of the Order for India
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Ajinkya Rahane’s century guides India to historic win over England.

Variants of this headline would have appeared in the papers about a month-and-a-half ago after the Lord’s Test had Ishant Sharma not bowled the spell of a lifetime on the final day.

Rahane’s sublime hundred under pressure in that match had built the platform on which India would go on and claim their first Test win at Lord’s since 1986, ending a 24-year wait. However, it was Ishant who ran away with all the accolades, including the Man of the Match award.

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But then such materialistic thoughts would hardly enter the mind of the tranquil 26-year-old from Mumbai. He had spent many a season on the fringe of the Indian XI, finally getting a long rope last year.

He was played out of position in both formats, hardly ever getting to show his worth in his preferred opener’s slot. But then it hardly mattered as long as the opportunities were coming along and he was making the most of them.

That is, however, more than could be said of his form in the limited overs. Since making his debut on these shores in 2011, Rahane had built up the status of being "The 40s man."

In 32 matches prior to Tuesday’s one-dayer, Rahane had been dismissed in the 40s five times; he hadn’t scored a single century, and four of his six half-centuries were hit against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan.

Rahane was the guy who elegantly set himself up for the big innings, replete with gorgeous strokes and the perfect temperament for a one-day innings—not too flashy and not too languid—only for all his efforts to be cruelly washed away due to a brief lapse in his monk-like concentration.

Come Tuesday, he had the perfect platform to eradicate all those past memories. India had bowled brilliantly to set themselves a paltry 207-run target to clinch the ODI series.

Rohit Sharma’s broken finger meant that Rahane was promoted up the order to his favoured opening position, as he was for the previous match.

Back then, at Trent Bridge, he had scored a fluent 45 before edging Steven Finn to wicketkeeper Jos Butler. At Cardiff in the second ODI, after hitting a breezy 41 at No. 4, he had found a less commonplace way to get out: via a stumping.

And so at Birmingham, when Rahane began his innings at the top of the order by pasting James Anderson (of all people) for four boundaries in different parts of the park, it would have drawn a few loud cheers from the Indian fans but not a lot of optimism.

However, as Rahane moved along, he raised the level of delight and optimism with each passing boundary.

His straight drive was immensely gratifying, but not more than his swift swivel-and-pull. His cover drives and gentle pushes through the gaps in the off side brought out the “ooohs,” while the whips and flicks over mid-wicket preceded the “aaahs.”

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On 38, he sent Finn sailing over mid-wicket with a graceful front-foot pull. Then, after eight watchful balls in the nervous 40s, he slog-swept Moeen Ali’s off-spinner for another maximum to bring up a much-coveted 50.

He wasn't the only Indian who would have breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Once he had bulldozed his way through that mental roadblock, he was in cruise control. He dominated and dictated to the English attack via his own passive-aggressive style of batting.

Yes, he waltzed down the track and launched Anderson over long-on for six, but could the opposition hate his guts? Not a chance.

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Before you knew it, he brought up his maiden ODI century without breaking a sweat. And then, as if to show his generosity to his hosts, he punched a full toss straight to cover on 106. His first 53 runs had taken him 60 balls to get; the next 53 took just 40.

Finally, Rahane had his headline.

So uplifting was his innings that even Shikhar Dhawan, who was in woeful touch prior to this game, rediscovered some of his flair and started whacking the balls out of the park.

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The low target helped with the pressure, but Rahane still brought that calmness to the Indian top order, whose opening batsmen had not recorded a 50 partnership throughout the tour prior to this game.

Rahane’s prowess at the top of the order gives India a selection conundrum when Sharma returns to full fitness. If Rahane can continue to thrive as an opener, it would elevate him from being the third choice to actually making Sharma and Dhawan fight to be his partner.

While Dhawan and Sharma are quite similar when it comes to their temperament and aggression, Rahane brings a wonderful mixture of being both watchful and pouncy.

Indian skipper MS Dhoni even admitted after the match that the opening slot suits Rahane’s game. He said, as quoted by the Indian Express: "Rahane was always someone who was third in line for the opening slot and he has made the most out of it. He is a good timer which makes it slightly easy for him. It’s a spot that suits him."

If all three openers maintain their form as the World Cup nears, India can also consider slotting Rahane at No. 3, but no lower. As flexible a batsman as he his, and as hasty a verdict this might seem after just one substantial innings, he brings forth that confidence that he will stabilise the top of the order.

Rahane is easily the most mature of India's three openers, and the team's think tank should work towards finding him a permanent spot in their batting order as soon as possible.

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