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Exclusive: Ajinkya Rahane's journey from Azad Maidan to the Australian fortress

Khaleej Times logo Khaleej Times 04/02/2021 Rituraj Borkakoty
a group of baseball players standing on top of a dirt field: Exclusive: Ajinkya Rahane's journey from Azad Maidan to the Australian fortress © Provided by Khaleej Times Exclusive: Ajinkya Rahane's journey from Azad Maidan to the Australian fortress

Ajinkya Rahane is not a man who smiles at you from the billboards. Shy and reticent, Rahane was, perhaps, not your idea of a man who could galvanise your team after they had put on that ugly total (36 all out) at the Adelaide Oval, the prettiest of all cricket grounds.

Yes, of course, you did get a whiff of Rahane's tactical acumen when he had shepherded India's fortunes in Virat Kohli's absence against Australia four years ago at Dharamshala.

But this was no Dharamshala. This was right in the Kangaroos' den, the most hostile of all cricket territories. And this was an India that was mentally and physically wounded.

Lest we forget, this was also an India without its captain and its fiercest competitor, Kohli.

What happened next is now a part of the Indian cricketing folklore and which has, under Rahane's calming effect, elevated the Pujaras, the Pants and a bunch of novices to near mythic status.

And it has also made India the overwhelming favourites against England as the two teams clash in the four-Test series with a place in the ICC World Test Championship final up for grabs.

Without Rahane's astute leadership in Australia, India would not have been in this position today.

Rahane's astonishing success in Australia has its roots in the myriad challenges he faced while chasing his cricket dreams as a 'little boy' on the maidans of Mumbai.

One man who has seen Rahane take on the tough challenges from a tender age is Amit Shah.

"I have known Ajinkya since he came to Dombivli as a seven-year-old. Our coach asked me to look after this 'little boy'," Shah recalled, while talking to Khaleej Times.

Rahane's childhood friend is not surprised by his defiant act as a makeshift leader of an injury-ravaged Indian team in Australia.

"He was a very small kid, with a big kitbag. But from day one, he was a fearless cricketer. He loved to open the innings," said Shah.

Long before Rahane had Australia, a proud sporting nation, at his feet by masterminding one of the greatest underdog victories of all time, it was Mumbai's iconic Azad Maidan that saw the steely resolve behind his soft exterior.

Shah narrates an incident when a nine-year-old Rahane was hit on the helmet by a sturdy 26-year-old pace bowler in an open tournament (no age limit for participating players) at the Azad Maidan.

"He ran away from the wicket after the ball hit him and started crying," Shah recalled.

But he wiped away the tears after the bowler had taunted him that opening the batting and facing the hard, new cricket ball was not 'his cup of tea'.

"So he came back to the wicket, took guard, looked at the field positions and hit five fours in the next five balls. I still remember the entire scene. That bowler then came back to him and told him that one day he would play at the highest level. It was the first complement he ever received," Shah said.

Another man who is no stranger to Rahane's mental fortitude is Pravin Amre, the former India cricketer.

Amre, who had scored a match-saving Test hundred on debut against the Allan Donald-led South African bowling attack at Durban in 1992, was not surprised by how Rahane inspired an injury-hit Indian team to breach 'fortress Gabba' and make history in Australia.

"It was a session with the National Security Guard (NSD) that taught him how to take decisions under pressure," Amre told Khaleej Times.

"You know, the commandos, they have to take split-second decisions when it's a matter of life and death. As a mentor, I asked him to do that and it helped him in taking decisions and staying calm under pressure. Whatever resources he has, he knows how to get the best out of them."

Amre could not have given a better insight into Rahane's resilience, how he got the best out of debutants T Natarajan, Washington Sundar, Mohammed Siraj and Shubman Gill after he had struggled to put together 11 fit players.

That Indian epic Down Under has now raised a serious question, though.

Should Rahane replace Virat Kohli as Test captain?

"Virat was and will always be the captain of the Test team and I am his deputy. When he was absent, it was my duty to lead the side and my responsibility to give my best for Team India's success," Rahane recently told PTI.

One man who was not surprised by that response is Amit Shah, Rahane's childhood friend who rushed to the wicket to check 'if there was any bleeding' after he was hit on the helmet.

Now you know what he saw that day at the Azad Maidan.

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