Ajinkya Rahane is a beautiful batsman. He plays well timed shots that are a joy to watch. He also has a habit of playing the same innings every time he bats. He gets himself in and starts scoring at a rate of about 120 runs for every 100 balls he faces. If you extrapolate that rate across a whole innings, the team would score about 144 runs. On anything other than the most difficult of surfaces, that is not enough.
Rahane has played 126 times in T20 cricket, the vast majority of those on batting friendly pitches in India. His career strike rate of 118 would have been effective in T20 cricket five years ago, but the game has changed almost beyond recognition.
There is an argument to be made that Rahane offers top-order stability around which the big hitters in the side can build an imposing total. But, as Pune set another score of 160ish, it doesn’t seem to be a tactic that is working. The issue isn’t so much that Rahane is playing bad cricket, just that the sport has evolved quicker than he has. As it becomes increasingly difficult to set a total that is defendable, the steady accumulator at the top of the order is losing relevance.
In the semi-final of the World T20, and twice now in this IPL, Rahane has made a decent score that has not led his side to victory. On Sunday night in Pune, he made 67 from 52 balls. It wasn’t a terrible score or a bad innings, but that strike rate of 128 as an opener puts those that come after under pressure. Having been set 161 to win, the Knight Riders chased down the total even after they lost their in-form opening partnership of Gautam Gambhir and Robin Uthappa early on.
A 49-ball-60 from Suryakumar Yadav was no quicker than Rahane’s, but batting second there was much less pressure and he got off to a flying start in the opening overs. Despite losing wickets, KKR were always favourites. 160 was not enough runs and as a result it didn’t matter that Dhoni was a tactically astute captain and it didn’t matter how well the Pune bowlers performed; they were always going to struggle.
This isn’t an attempt to be overly critical of Rahane, he is batting to a plan and doing it well. The problem is the plan. Especially when batting first the approach of T20 accumulators is fraught with danger. Batting first in T20 is always the hardest thing to do, by definition it is possible to score the total that has been achieved batting first, someone has already done it. There is no way of knowing what a “par” score is on a T20 wicket until someone has done it. You are always entering the unknown. There is a reason why of the 19 games in the IPL so far this season, the team batting second has won 16 times.
The Rising Pune Supergiants have won just one game in five matches now and that solitary victory came when they bowled first and were chasing down a sub-par total. If they are going to bat first and win, they need to look again at their approach. Their opening batsman scoring a half-century and the team still losing means the innings has helped no one.
It didn’t matter than MS Dhoni scored at a strike rate of 191 or that the second half of the innings saw a significant acceleration. What went before meant that the team were always against it. It did not help that RPS have lost the services of Kevin Pietersen, who has been ruled out for the rest of the tournament with a torn calf muscle; while Pietersen has had a hit and miss history at the IPL, he can still give real top order impetus. Pietersen’s replacement in the team was Albie Morkel who scored a quick fire 16 batting at five and then opened the bowling, He picked up two wickets but also conceded 12 an over and did not bowl his full allocation.
While having batted first four of the five times in a tournament where chasing appears to be much easier has had an impact, the Pune side are making a habit of setting middling totals when they bat first. It is certainly not just because of Rahane and his approach, but it does not help.
There was some positives for the Supergiants, and first among those was the bowling of Rajat Bhatia, who conceded just 19 runs off his four overs. Dhoni too looked to be at somewhere close to his best during his 23-run knock off 12 balls. But they are still struggling at second to last in the table with only the truly awful Kings XI Punjab keeping them off the bottom spot.They need to find a way to win the toss and bowl first or set more challenging totals.