Shane Warne predicted that Australia would walk all over India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. He was not in a club of one. The Boxing Day match was scheduled for a few days after India had collapsed to their lowest Test total ever. The historic ignominy and its likely impact on team morale, compounded by the absence of the talismanic Virat Kohli, made the outcome of the next match a foregone conclusion.
However, against all odds, India would script an eight-wicket victory which made it seem like the two teams were batting on different pitches, quite like Australia had done in Adelaide the previous week.
Almost more incredible was the fact that Ravichandran Ashwin had Steven Smith jumping all over the wicket—not in India, but in Australia. After the match, Ashwin would credit Rahane’s “calmness in the dressing room” for boosting his own confidence.
The Indian team’s head coach Ravi Shastri, who has become something of Kohli’s lieutenant, pretended not to understand the question when he was asked if Rahane was more of a “bowlers’ captain”. The answer is yes. Even in the absence of Umesh Yadav for nearly all of the second innings, even after having been let down by the batting in the first Test, the men with the ball were able to bond together and crush Australia twice over. The stand-in captain, referred to as a “calming influence”, supported the bowlers’ efforts with a splendid century that gave India a strong advantage after losing the toss.
The victory—India’s only one in Tests this year—has broken several records, ending a dry run on tour as well as against Australia, and crucially in the wake of a lost toss.
Shastri did credit Rahane, saying his “calm composure helped the debutants”—Shubman Gill and Mohammed Siraj, who had dream starts to their careers.
There are not many people who know as much about coming back from behind as Rahane. In 2018, despite being vice-captain, he was dropped for Two tests in South Africa, in favour of more flamboyant—though not necessarily more talented—players. Despite the humiliation, he batted with grit in the third match. His 48 was instrumental in India’s win, which enabled the team to retain the Test championship trophy.
Rahane has been one of the few players in the Indian team who has done consistently well overseas, and especially in difficult situations. Yet, he has been excluded from one-day internationals, on the grounds that Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan typically score faster than he does. For a time, K L Rahul’s inclusion was seen as necessitating Rahane’s exclusion even in the longer format.
It would be sad if Rahane’s captaincy skills were as underrated as his batting skills for as long.
The Indian cricket team has a history of prioritising boisterousness over quiet performance. Kohli’s aggressive gestures on the field, his snapping at the spectators, at the opposition, and at his own team, his barely-contained anger at press conferences when he is questioned by reporters, and his refusal to toe the line of anyone else—even the team coach, which reportedly led to the exit of Anil Kumble—have all been seen as signs of confidence.
There is something solid about the rather diminutive Rahane, something that reminds one of Rahul Dravid in the resilience and the dignity. Yet, the power of his patience is often subsumed by the strength of Kohli’s passion. A couple of decades ago, Sourav Ganguly’s style and sulkiness were considered “in-your-face”. Dravid was never a serious choice for captain, and his strategic brilliance was overshadowed by his subdued behaviour on the field.
Rahane’s success in the Melbourne Test should not be considered a flash in the pan. He has achieved a formidable feat not only in this particular match, but in his career—with wins in his first three Tests as captain, he’s a match away from equalling Dhoni’s record.
His style of captaincy is remarkably different from Kohli, who appears to see himself as a general leading an army—while Rahane positions himself as the member of a unit. The team appeared cohesive and his men cooperative, not subordinate to him. At Melbourne, he was often spotted discussing the situation with the senior players in the team.
It is important not to see Rahane as a mere substitute for Kohli when he is absent, but also groom him as a regular prospect for captaincy. While the two players are of the same age, Kohli does have far more on his plate. He is also regularly compared with Dhoni, never more so than when he decided to fly back home for the birth of his first child after the shameful defeat. Dhoni had decided to remain on tour when his own daughter was born. Kohli’s statement that there is more to life than cricket did not go down well with fans of the Indian team. But most other international teams understand players’ need to prioritise their families. Some find workarounds to ensure that the team’s performance does not suffer from the unavailability of a particular player.
In the early 2000s, the Australian team prided itself on being led by a posse of senior players, all of the same generation. The formula was remarkably successful. This is the model being encouraged by Rahane, and one that should be encouraged by the management too—even after Kohli’s return.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishn