India’s Ajinkya Rahane – ‘I’m young and there’s a lot of cricket left in me’

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Having turned 35 last month, Ajinkya Rahane says he still has a “lot of cricket left” in him, but is firmly focused on living in the moment instead of looking too far into the future as India begin their new WTC cycle with the two-match Test series against West Indies beginning July 12 in Roseau.

Call it a quirk of fate, and Rahane has been named vice-captain of the Test team, even though he was making a comeback to the side only last month after more than a year away. In that game against Australia – the WTC final no less – he was India’s best batter, with scores of 89 and 46.

“I’m still young and there’s a lot of cricket left in me. In the last one year or so, I’ve worked a lot on my fitness,” Rahane said after rain cut short India’s training session for a second day in a row at Windsor Park. “There were a few points in my batting that I’ve worked on. I’m enjoying my cricket a lot, enjoying my batting. I’m not thinking too much into the future. Every game is important, personally and also from the team point of view. I’m focusing on just that.”

Since being left out of the Test side in February 2022, Rahane has focused on deriving joy out of the game without setting any expectations. He captained Mumbai across formats in the 2022-23 domestic season, leading them to the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 title, while also throwing in some compelling performances with the bat.

In all first-class cricket since September 2022 until February this year, he scored 884 runs in 16 innings with three hundreds and a half-century at 58.93. The numbers, excellent though not world beating, were a sign that he had kept himself in the hunt should a spot open up.

As it turned out, India needed experience for the WTC final in Shreyas Iyer’s absence. And when Rahane got the call, he was batting in the manner few expected him to in the IPL, going from an anchor to a full-blown boundary-hitter.

The turnaround was remarkable because Rahane wasn’t in Chennai Super Kings’ original plans. His IPL career seemed to have hit a dead end; he hadn’t hit a fifty in the tournament since the 2020 edition. And like at the Indian team, a spot opened up for Super Kings because Ben Stokes was injured and Moeen Ali unwell. He vindicated the backing in his second game, scoring a match-winning 61 off just 27 balls against Mumbai Indians.

“Nothing has changed,” Rahane insisted when asked of this latest turn in his career. “CSK gave me a role, and you try to fulfil that role. Prior to that, my role was of an anchor, [and] I played according to that. CSK told me, ‘You have freedom, go out and play according to that’. I’m actually a stroke-maker, I always look for runs. The role has changed, nothing else has changed. I’ve always said I’ll fulfil the role the team gives me. That’s what I’m focusing on.”

The WTC final last month was Rahane’s first match under Rohit Sharma‘s captaincy for India, even though they both go back a long way, having grown up playing together for Mumbai through the age-group circuit and then the first-class format.

“The role Rohit gives me, I’ll fulfil that. Playing under Rohit is great,” Rahane said. “He gives freedom to the players, and then backs them. They’re signs of a great captain. I’m feeling good. We share a great equation. I’m used to this role [as vice-captain]. I did the job for almost five years, but I’m really happy to be back in the team. Really happy to be back as vice-captain.”

Rahane was particularly chuffed for another Mumbai boy – 21-year-old Yashasvi Jaiswal, who Rahane captained in domestic cricket all through 2022-23, where Jaiswal made heads turn with his temperament and stroke-play. In all, Jaiswal has a first-class average of 80.21 in 26 innings, and scores of 213 and 144 in his most recent first-class game, in the Irani Cup in March.

“My message will be to go out there and express himself, and not think too much about international cricket. It’s about playing with freedom”

Team-mates at Mumbai, Ajinkya Rahane has some advice for the uncapped Yashasvi Jaiswal

Having been a part of the reserves for the WTC final, Jaiswal has now been given an elevation into the main squad. It’s likely he will be handed a cap to slot in either at the top or at one drop in place of Cheteshwar Pujara.

“I’m really happy for him. He’s an exciting talent,” Rahane said. “He’s done really well for Mumbai, [and] did well in the IPL. Most important [is] the way he’s batting in red-ball cricket. His record is good, he did well in the Duleep Trophy last year and for Mumbai as well. My message will be to just go out there and express himself the way he’s batting, and not think too much about [the stage of] international cricket. It’s about going in the middle and playing with freedom.”

Rahane also didn’t think India fielding a pace attack with just 88 Test wickets between them was a concern. While Mohammed Siraj will be India’s spearhead in the West Indies with 52 wickets so far in Tests, Jaydev Unadkat, who made a return to the format after 12 years against Bangladesh last December, has been India’s most consistent red-ball bowler in domestic cricket for the last four seasons.

In two of them, Unadkat led the team to a title and in one season – 2019-20 – picked up a record-breaking 67 wickets, the most by a fast bowler in a single Ranji season. In 2022-23, he featured in just four Ranji games owing to national call-ups. Unadkat led the side in all those fixtures, and took 26 wickets at an average of 13.88. His best performance came against Delhi, in which he took a hat-trick in the first over of the match on his way to career-best figures of 8 for 39.

“Siraj is there as a senior bowler, [and] Jaydev has a lot of experience. The other two guys [Shardul Thakur and Navdeep Saini] are pretty much experienced, so it’s an opportunity,” Rahane said. “[Mohammed] Shami is our senior bowler who has really done well for us, but with a long season ahead, need to give him a rest as well.

“At the same time, we are not underestimating West Indies. We don’t know what people are saying on the outside, but we are definitely not taking them lightly. Their performance at home in Tests has been good in the last one to two years. We’ve had good preparation in Barbados before coming in, so we’re well covered. It’s all about starting well now.”

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo