Where steely Rahane scores over in-your-face Kohli

Rahane threw down the gauntlet by promoting counterpuncher Rishabh Pant in the batting order.

By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Wed 20 Jan 2021, 10:16 PM

The rival captains, Ajinkya Rahane and Tim Paine, were a study in contrast on the last day of the India-Australia series in Brisbane, which the visitors sealed with a historic 2-1 win against all the odds on Tuesday.

Rahane threw down the gauntlet by promoting counterpuncher Rishabh Pant in the batting order. It was a signal that India had a win in sight and not just a draw to level the series, even though the side had been hugely depleted by injury. Contrast that with Paine’s main weapon on the fifth-day wicket, off-spinner Nathan Lyon, bowling wide outside off-stump to Pant, hoping the impetuous 23-year-old would give his wicket away. It betrayed a defensive mindset and a fear of losing.

We saw this on the final day of the previous Test in Sydney too, where Australia fell back into run-saving positions when Pant came out at number five and counterattacked. It disrupted the Aussie bowling and ultimately helped force a draw. The script might have run differently if Hanuma Vihari had joined Cheteshwar Pujara at 102-3, presenting two defensive batsmen to the Aussie pacers with 96 overs to go.

Indian fans have got used to seeing the in-your-face aggression of Virat Kohli, shouting, jumping, and exhorting his players. But in Rahane’s understated, steely leadership we got a chance to see another form of aggression where actions speak louder than words. This was evident right after the debacle in the first Test in Adelaide, where India collapsed for 36.

The replacement of Wriddhiman Saha with Pant and the selection of all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja in place of Kohli, who had gone on paternity leave, showed positivity. With five bowlers and more firepower in batting, India was ready to fight back, instead of allowing Australia to dictate terms.

Cricket is a team sport where the captain has a huge impact on the field. Ball by ball, over after over, he decides on fielding positions, choice of bowler, length of bowling spell, et al. This is where Rahane stood out with a mix of astuteness and aggressiveness from which Kohli could draw many a lesson.

Take the introduction of off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin in the 11th over of the second Test in Melbourne when the ball was still shiny new. Rahane has captained at the Wankhede in Mumbai long enough to know that moisture on the first morning gives bite to a spinner. Sure enough, Ashwin’s prize scalp of Steve Smith followed by the wicket of Mathew Wade took away whatever psychological edge Australia had from the first Test. It was a refreshing change for the world’s top off-spinner, who has rarely enjoyed coming early into the attack on tours. For example, he was the fourth bowler to get the ball in Adelaide.

Rahane is a “bowler’s captain”, which essentially means he gives them the space to apply their own minds and take the initiative. Superstar captains can sometimes subdue that faculty in a bowler, even if they don’t mean to.

Another contrast with Kohli is that Rahane gave bowlers longer spells, even if they came under attack, letting them work out a batsman. He always had “in-out” fields, with men on the boundary as well as in catching positions even when a partnership flourished, which kept pressure on batsmen. Kohli tends to be reactive, being too quick to spread the field or take a bowler out of the attack. So, even if Rahane appears on the surface to be the milder captain, his approach is in fact more aggressive on the field.

It’s no fluke that he has four wins and one draw in the five Tests he has captained for India, four of which have been against Australia. At Dharamsala in 2017, the selection of debutant Kuldeep Yadav and his four wickets on the first day helped win the series decider, after Rahane took over from the injured Kohli. Yadav bowled 23 overs, which were as many as the experienced Ashwin. So Rahane’s aggression and smart reading of the game are nothing new.

Kohli has brought a lot to Indian cricket by his positivity, a fitness culture, and opportunities to newcomers. But at this juncture, where the IPL — and perhaps Rahul Dravid’s coaching of junior teams — has given India an abundance of battle-ready talent, perhaps a switch to the Rahane brand of leadership will suit the team better and produce more consistent results.

Kohli has had a great run as a Test captain in India, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, but not so much in the SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand, and Australia), where he has recorded four wins and 11 losses in 17 Tests. If he hands over the reins to Rahane, as Sachin Tendulkar did to Sourav Ganguly, it would give India the win-win of Rahane’s captaincy and Kohli’s focus on being the world’s best batsman.

If Rahane could beat Australia in their own backyard with a second-string team, imagine what he might do with the full resources of Indian cricket at his disposal.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bangalore. Write to him at 

More news from Opinion