Kanpur Test: Rahane, Pujara move into leadership roles as old bond with coach Dravid strengthens

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India’s Cheteshwar Pujara, left and teammate Ajinkya Rahane in action during a Test. (AP)

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Shared News: November 25, 2021 9:07:44 am
During Rahul Dravid’s tenure, the pair of Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara could emerge more into the foreground as seen during the practice session on the eve of the first Test.

Three brisk strides, the last longer than the first two, Rahul Dravid broke into his delivery stride with an effortless whirl of his shoulder, floated an off-break into Cheteshwar Pujara at the nets. The ball landed just outside the off-stump to encounter the visage of Pujara’s stretched and dead-straight bat. The ball dropped dead beside his feet, and as Pujara threw the ball back at Dravid, the latter gestured to him with a flick of his wrists that he could not cajole the flight he had wanted.

Watching all these, not far from the nets, was Ajinkya Rahane. He walked towards Dravid and whispered something into his ears. Dravid vigorously nodded his head, before rushing back to bowl the next. This one was more flight, had more revs, dropped suddenly into Pujara and spun back sharply into his legs. Pujara swiftly went deep into his crease and defended the ball to safety, though uncomfortably. Dravid flicked a thumbs’ up at Rahane. Whatever his inputs were, it seemed to work.

Later, as Pujara shifted to the centre nets, Rahane sped in, yelling “Rahul bhai, Rahul bhai,” as if imploring him to bowl a few off-breaks at him. Dravid obliged—and eventually he ended up bowling to most of the batters and some bowlers, including Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav. It was not the last time the trio of Rahane, Pujara and Dravid were spotted together, so much so they seemed to share an invisible magnetic field. Pujara after executing a brace of sweep shots, a tool that he rarely pulls out, looked approvingly at Dravid, who nudged his head in approval. Later, the three intensely watched Jayant Yadav and Iyer.

The warmth the trio shared, more fraternal than professional, was obvious, and it could be that in Dravid’s reign, the pair of Rahane and Pujara could emerge more into the foreground, as pillars of leadership. The upgrading of roles comes at the ripest time too, when they are entering probably the last stage of their career.

Both are 33, and are part of the team’s fulcrum. Pujara had said the other day that he was helping out youngsters even before he was made the vice-captain, and would continue to, but his efforts were perceptible during the nets in the last two years.

Not that they were less prominent members during Ravi Shastri’s tenure, but they were largely men in the background, quietly going about their chores, unless when Rahane was the stand-in captain. Maybe, the personas of Shastri and Kohli were so overpowering that the eyes and ears were largely trained on them, even as Rahane and Pujara, slipped into a cloak of anonymity, as is their nature.

Dravid’s is a more mellowed, even un-ubiquitous presence. He is like a restless kid at the park, everywhere and nowhere. The moment your eyes slip off him, he would be in a different corner of the ground. Whereas Shastri infused a contagious intensity into net sessions, Dravid brings an infectious wave of calm. Not just Rahane and Pujara, there seemed to be a bunch of leaders on the ground. Like Umesh Yadav taking Prasidh Krishna under his wings, or Ravindra Jadeja and Ravi Ashwin talking extensively with Jayant Yadav.

But here, you could see a more involved Pujara and Rahane, not only mindful of their own net sessions, but also those of others. Like Pujara, who frequently sidled up Shreyas Iyer, who would make his Test debut on Thursday. Rahane was overseeing the fielding practises too on Tuesday. They were more visible, vibrant presences than ever before, rather than being content with oneself.

Maybe, it’s just the excitement of having Dravid in the side. Someone, who Rahane and Pujara had idolised all their lives. Dravid’s Adelaide double hundred had Pujara searching sports shops for Dravid’s “dazzler” gloves. Rahane has gulped up his Rawalpindi double ton more than any of his favourite movies. Someone who had mentored them in the past, as well someone who they had speed-dialled in times of crisis.

Before his career-reviving century against Sri Lanka in 2015, Pujara took a break to turn up for India ‘A’ against the touring Australia ‘A’ side, the early days of Dravid’s coaching journey. Pujara emerged from the series not only with runs, but also his morale resurrected, and he eventually carried the bat on a tacky wicket at SSC in the deciding Test of the series. “I was not in a great space of mind, I was questioning my own technique, but Rahul bhai assured me that my technique was fine and I just needed to get the negativity out of my mind,” he once recounted to this paper.

So did Rahane, two years ago, when he was riding a confidence crisis himself. He hit the NCA —it’s an invitation Dravid had extended to both in their first encounter — and rekindled his touch. Even during India’s comeback -from-36-all-out to a series win – they were in constant touch. “If a guy like Rahul Dravid is there, you learn something every day… We talk over the phone, exchange messages. He messaged me after the Melbourne match and immediately after the Brisbane match, saying how proud he was of the team,” Rahane had once told this paper in an Express Adda.

He still swears by Dravid’s advice to not practice too hard in the nets. “He once told me that it was the biggest mistake he had made in his playing days, and that I shouldn’t.” Dravid sounded out Pujara to be not hyper-fixated with his technique. Possibly speaking from his own experience.

He was also the person who thrust leadership roles on Rahane, back in their Rajasthan Royals days. “We were both playing for Rajasthan Royals when he came and told me that he was going through a rough time with the bat and I needed to take more leadership duties to guide the batting unit. Rahul bhai always did that, he always shared leadership duties,” Rahane detailed in a Delhi Capitals video.

From a batting perspective too, Dravid’s taking charge has come at the right time. Both Rahane and Pujara have been short of runs. The latter has not scored a century in nearly three years, though his defiant half-centuries have corner-stoned some of India’s finest moments in England and Australia. Apart from the Melbourne hundred at the start of the year, Rahane has been woefully short of runs. Both were probed multiple times, in the last few days, about their shortage of runs and Dravid’s advice to them. “Rahul bhai just told us to back ourselves and not think too much about it. Pujara and I know our game plan, it is about keeping it simple and backing our plans. If we get in, try to convert it into a big one,” Rahane said in the press conference.

Not just them, everyone seemed to share a spontaneous comfort quotient with Dravid. Not just because he’s imminently likeable, but all of them have either played with him or been coached by him. They were Dravid’s boys, even before Dravid took charge.

Coaches often need time to blend in with the players and adapt to the culture. Less so with Dravid. It is as if he has always been there, as an invisible guiding force. His induction as India’s coach must be the smoothest taking over of the national team by a coach in the history of Indian cricket. And the clearest takeaway would be the emergence of Rahane and Pujara as leaders.