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Ahead of the Indian Premier League (IPL) this year, while the focus of all participating players was on white-ball cricket, Ajinkya Rahane was preparing in Mumbai intensely with the red ball for the tour of Australia even though he was going to bat for Delhi Capitals prior to that in the IPL.
Rahane's hard work seems to have paid off as he smashed a match-winning 112 against Australia in the second Test to help India win by eight wickets and level the four-match series at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
"This year has been a challenge because of Covid. It was tough to have proper practice sessions. Also the tour was such that there would be IPL in UAE and from there he was going to Australia. We prepared him not for IPL but for Australia. We knew that Aussies will come back strongly, especially with the short balls. Media was building up that too," former India batsman Pravin Amre, who has been helping Rahane with his batting, told IANS on Wednesday.
Amre says Rahane had realised that there would be no opportunity to practice with red ball prior to Australia series, especially in the UAE where it will be all white-ball cricket. So, he took 10-12 days out for intense training doing two two-hour sessions daily. He would go back after a session and return for another in the evening.
"He worked really hard despite Covid. Basically, he managed his own practice sessions. Not one session but he used to do two sessions a day and just worked on challenges he would face in Australia. So, he had prepared himself well before going. He was aware that he would not get any opportunity to work with red ball in the UAE where it will be only white ball. Whatever red ball he will play will be in Australia. He made sure he planned it himself and worked hard at it. We generally practice for a session but this time he made sure he practiced for two sessions a day with red ball," added Amre who would be with him mostly for one of those sessions before tending to his other job as Mumbai's high performance coach.
In his last 27 Tests prior to the Boxing Day Test, including many at home, Rahane had scored just two centuries, one against West Indies in Antigua and the other against South Africa in Ranchi. He had 10 fifties and averaged 34.6 in the period.
His travel to Australia two seasons back, when Cheteshwar Pujara scored tons, yielded just two fifties and an average of 28.77 in nine innings. The England tour of 2018 prior to that was equally bad as he averaged 25.7 and got two fifties across 10 innings. Early this year, in New Zealand, he failed to get even a fifty across four innings. Worse, NZ pace bowler Neil Wagner made him look like a rookie against short balls, peppering them all over his body.
"He wanted to come closer to what he batted in England (in 2014) where he was fluent at Lord's (scoring 103). He worked on positive things on what has worked for him before and how he can repeal it," said Amre.
This latest comeback at the MCG was reminiscent of Rahane's early years when he returned from a horrid debut to become India's most trusted batsman in overseas conditions, especially in the SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) countries within a year.
Back in 2013, Rahane's Test debut against Australia at Delhi's Ferozeshah Kotla in front of his parents who had flown down from Mumbai to see their son play for India, was a nightmare. He was hit on the head and dismissed by off-spinners Nathan Lyon and Glenn Maxwell for seven and one.
It immediately set off criticism about his technique. But he got back to the nets and began preparing for India's next series which were all overseas. India were to tour South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia over a period of one year, playing 13 Tests there.
"That first Test match he had a bad debut. From there we started working together because I firmly believed that he belongs to the next level. I knew he could play there. The challenge was that the tours after that were all overseas," said Amre.
"The next four series were big tours overseas with none at home -- Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand. As an Indian batsman, you are always comfortable playing at home, at least in your initial Tests. We knew the challenge was always there because he got hit there on the head on debut and then got out to innocuous off-spinner (Glenn Maxwell in second innings)," pointed out Amre, who made a century on his Test debut in Durban in 1992.
"Ajinkya knew that to play for the country long enough he had to do something extraordinary. My role was to prepare him since I had played in South Africa, I was aware of the bounce, type of wickets or conditions there. In fact, for every tour we prepared differently -- Australia was different, New Zealand was different, and South africa was different," explained Amre.
Rahane, like his batting mentor who he has known since he made his Ranji Trophy debut in 2007-08, did well at Durban falling just four short of a century. The right-hander, who came in to bat at No.6 was the last man standing as the entire India batting line-up collapsed. In a bid to hasten to a century with the No. 11 Mohammed Shami at the other end, he missed the line from Vernon Philander and was bowled for 96.
Rahane followed that up with 118 at Wellington against New Zealand, a 103 against England at Lord's and a 147 against Australia in Melbourne over the next one year prompting experts to term him India's most reliable batsman overseas.
But consistent flow of centuries never came, although he played some important knocks like a 48 on a tough wicket in Johannesburg in 2018 after being benched for the first two Tests.
"It (getting dropped regularly) is never too easy to handle. He was not picked for white ball teams and was dropped even from the Test matches. That is very difficult to handle," Amre added. "The reason why he doesn't have too many centuries is because he bats at No.5 and gets to bat with the lower order. But you can't do anything about it. Pujara is quite successful at No.3 and then you have the run machine Virat Kohli at No.4."
The MCG ton this week was his 12th in seven years and 67 Tests and the first in SENA countries since that 2014 Boxing Day Test ton.
India team will hope for more.