It was the chilly winter of 2017 when Sri Lanka came calling. Like they usually do, but this was the absolute pinnacle. India had just made an all-format tour to the Emerald Isle, blanking then 9-0, but once again? The cynosure was at a different point.
It doesn’t really matter whether Ravi Shastri undermined the Lankans and thought it would be an experiment to dish out some green tops for the Sri Lanka series, but what mattered at the end was Ajinkya Rahane - the vice-captain of the side - averaged just a shade over 3. It was a disappointing series and one that forced the side to drop him for the first Test against South Africa in Cape Town. But what if the Indian selectors used the alternative and took the call of dropping him for the Tests altogether. We have a story in hand and let’s explore that binary.
We all know what happened in December 2016 when Karun Nair, after hitting a magnificent triple century in Chennai, was dropped for the very next Test because Ajinkya Rahane, who was out of the side for the Chennai Test, was out injured and his return would mean Nair’s spot going for a toss. It all seemed fair at that moment but Rahane’s woeful form was a concern that needed attention. So that brings the crux of the story as we take a step in that direction. It is the alternate universe that holds a narrative for Indian Cricket’s swing between a bountiful future and a dark tomorrow.
It is December 2017 and by then, Rahane’s stock has plummeted massively after the home series against Sri Lanka. It had been for a while and when he hit the nadir, there were jitters all around with a string of overseas tours coming India’s way. Thus comes the axe and Rahane is sent back to the grind of domestic and A-Cricket to prove his form and Nair, who was a passenger with the Indian squad all of 2017, is picked for a middle-order role where he accompanies Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. All seems sorted at the moment, even under the Table Mountain corridor, India romp home in a closely-fought encounter.
Riding the confidence of a half-century in Cape Town, Nair reaches the SuperSport Park in Centurion and there he combines with Virat Kohli to forge a 313-run partnership. India have become a behemoth suddenly with the Saffers trying to find a way out. Steyn is injured but powered by AB de Villiers, South Africa are nowhere depleted. But even before the Bullring comes calling, they are 2-0 down in the series and India have become the first Asian team to win a series in South Africa.
With no India return in sight, Rahane goes into IPL and subsequently makes a stunning return in the Ranji Trophy. But by then, Nair is one of the mainstays in the Indian team, scoring runs aplenty for India and becoming a decisive force in the England series where India drew the series 2-2. Meanwhile, Rahane is taking domestic cricket by storm and helps Mumbai to the Ranji Trophy final where they face Vidarbha. An effervescent double from Shreyas Iyer and then a 187 from Rahane ensure Mumbai toppling Vidarbha by an innings margin that incidentally has Chandrakant Pandit as the coach and Jaffer as the leading batsman.
It is a Catch 22 for the selectors and they can’t really ignore the second coming of a batsman who has always been touted for big things. Rahane makes a return and this time, not as an away specialist but to the cauldron which saw him playing some of the worst cricket of his career. Rahane is selected to play in the Windies series, but by then, India have another problem to counter. Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul have become a serial offender as an opener till then and India needed to strengthen their side before the Australia tour.
Thus they decide to send Rohit Sharma up top with debutant Prithvi Shaw for the company. It works like a charm as Rahane becomes India’s top scorer in the first Test against Jason Holder’s men with Rohit audaciously becoming a force for India as an opener. India poses a formidable threat to the Aussies, who are depleted by their own demons, but then the tragedy struck in Hyderabad.
They say, never become over-reliant on someone and India suffers the worst. India’s plans see a tragic turnaround as Karun Nair takes a blow to his hamstring in Hyderabad while Rahane suffers an ankle injury. With two of their mainstays out for a considerable part of the Australia series, India are fighting in equal terms and Australia suddenly raise their game.
Their bowlers are relentless, as are the Indians, but the absence of two of their major powers and an also-ran like Wriddhiman Saha, India flatters to deceive. Australia comes in a pack and Travis Head scores a brilliant century in the Boxing Day Test to take a 2-1 lead. It is all down to Sydney now and more or less, India’s ambition of retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. It was their best chance but what fun if they couldn’t even draw this?
We are in Sydney now and India win the toss and bat first. Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Peter Siddle attack up front to make up for the lack of teeth but India have been resilient. Despite having two of their best batsmen, who made for an attractive lower order, but with the bat, Australia showed their real character. Matthew Wade and Travis Head - two underwhelming batsmen in the side - faced the Indian bowling with elan as Aussies take a 79-run lead in the first innings.
It is a cluttering moment but the visitors fail to stand up to Lyon magic, folding up for 287, giving Australia a target of 209 runs. Wickets have deteriorated massively as Nathan Lyon shows his true avatar. Josh Hazlewood’s accurate bowling compounded that effect as India are staring at the abyss with a tunnel vision. And it is a big pack.
India lose quick wickets on the last session of the fourth day before rain hits hard. It is the only path between India losing the series 3-1 or 2-1 and the latter happens. It doesn’t relent before the umpires Ian Gould and Richard Kettleborough, after discussing with Andy Pycroft, call the game close as Tim Paine becomes an inspirational leader both on and off the field. Australia have found their courage and reputation back with India squandering their biggest opportunity to win the series Down Under. It led to a series of introspections for the Indian team and the fans, profoundly disgusted with their recency bias, call for the sacking of Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli. A timid close to a brilliant journey no one found the discourse by but that’s how tables turn in India. Ajinkya Rahane would’ve surely realised by now.