Editor’s Note: This week we bring you an excerpt from ‘The Miracle Makers’ by Bharat Sundaresan and Gaurav Joshi. This book chronicles the astonishing triumph of the Indian cricket team in the test series held in Australia in 2020-21. They overcame great odds–injuries, pandemic protocols, and the absence of captain Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami–to clinch a victory that is now the stuff of cricket legend. In this bit, we get a rare behind-the-scenes look at Ajinkya Rahane–who had the unenviable task of stepping into Kohli’s shoes. Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House—or buy it here.
Ajinkya Rahane: An (extra)ordinary man
Rahane’s drive to keep himself away from the spotlight also came through in how he lived his life away from the field. Even if it meant having to deal with constant jibes from some of his teammates. Like his decision to keep staying in Mulund, a middle class suburb on the boundary of Greater Mumbai. Rahane did so because he wanted to be close to his parents and live in the neighbourhood where he felt comfortable and could be himself.
And whenever the topic of Rahane preferring to stay away from the plusher suburbs—where others with his credentials had based themselves—came up in the Mumbai dressing room, an Indian teammate and close friend of his would always chip in: “Ajju living in Bandra or Juhu or South Mumbai? Are you mad? He is typical Marathi maanus [person]. The most upper-class place he will move to is Dadar near Shivaji Park. It is the only place where Ajju will fit in.” In fact, Rahane does reside in Dadar nowadays. There were others who would make fun of Rahane’s choices—his car, his clothes—but he would remain undeterred.
Ever since the Mumbai Cricket Academy was established at the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC), it became the place where cricketers from all competitive levels would end up for a hit or some training. There were, of course, always special privileges if you were an India cricketer.
Generally, the procedure was for the player to make specific requests for types of bowlers or bowling machines to the academy a day before. Often, you would have youngsters travelling over two hours on a crowded Mumbai train just to get the opportunity to bowl to the likes of Rahane.
As the story goes: once, Rahane had almost reached the academy when he found that he would have to head back for an urgent family matter. Instead of just leaving, he made it a point to meet the net bowlers, who’d come all the way just for him, and spent some time chatting with them, even posing for pictures, before apologising sincerely and heading off.
As he left, he would tell one of the staff in Marathi, ‘Konache nuksaan nako hoyla (Don’t want anyone to feel bad).’
Once, when sledged by an Australian bowler, Rahane was urged by his teammate to give it back. The best Rahane could come up with was to roll his tongue, slip it out of his mouth and make an ‘uuuu’ sound. It was a bizarre reaction that encapsulated Rahane’s personality. He was never going to be as expressive as Kohli or dominate the screen like Rohit does.
What works in Rahane’s favour is that he’s never been fazed by the outside noise. He won’t be the first cricketer to have that said about him. But in his case, it’s always true. His penchant for dead-batting questions that he doesn’t feel comfortable answering, even if they might not be controversial in nature, may have made him slightly unpopular in certain media circles. But regardless of whether he’s been under the pump or in form, he’s never let that guard down. You ask him about a certain ex-cricketer constantly criticising him, and he would talk about how he only cares for the support of his teammates…
Those who have played under him rave about how supportive he is in good and bad times. Ask him about why he is never seen getting angry with a bowler not executing a plan properly or doing a misfield, and he’ll tell you, ‘Chidoon kaay faayda (What’s the point of getting annoyed)? I find by remaining calm, the mind is at peace, and you end up making better decisions. If you struggle to keep hold of your emotions, then it will be difficult to manage others.’
There are plenty of examples that stand out about Rahane’s generosity as both player and person, and why he seems so comfortable to be in charge of a team.
“I remember treating him in the team medical room once, and another player walked in with some sort of pain. Before I could say something, Rahane was quick to suggest he was content to continue with the treatment on his own, and I should give preference to the other player’s injury,” a member of the fitness staff told us. “Rahane knows that cricket won’t define him, his personality will. People just say this, but he really believes in it. But that’s just him. That’s why people don’t know much about him. He’s happy to be like that. He is just the ultimate team man.”...
Even in his first Test as captain, at Dharamshala, he stood at first slip and watched Kuldeep Yadav slice through the middle order. He was ecstatic, but at the same time he could observe that Ashwin looked slightly aloof standing at mid-on. At the end of the over, he ran to his senior teammate, put his arm around him, almost to reinforce Ashwin’s self-belief, telling him that he was still his premier spinner. A couple of overs later, Ashwin removed Steve Smith on 111 and changed the course of the innings.
During the tour match at the Drummoyne Oval, while standing at gully, Rahane had observed the young and quick Kartik Tyagi was getting agitated with his run-up. A ball later, Rahane ran 50 metres to stand aside Tyagi to give him the self-assurance that every young cricketer needs.
A member of the support staff, who has been in many international dressing rooms globally and was also a part of the Indian team when Rahane had led in previous matches, said, "I have been fortunate to be a part of many teams in my career, and I can say that Rahane is one of those very rare captains who will not allow his form with the bat to dictate how he captains the side."
He always wants his team to stay in the present. The day after the MCG victory, Rahane allowed the players to soak in the victory but ensured that all the positive energy was directed towards the rest of the series. “We still have two Tests to play. Let us keep enjoying playing together,” he told them.
Similarly, at the end of Day Three in Brisbane—after Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur’s partnership had lifted the spirits of the team, and the feeling began to crystalize that regardless of the result, this team had already overachieved— Rahane’s message was still the same: “Two more days to go, boys. Enjoy the journey and stay in the present.”
Eventually, it would end up as a legacy-defining month and a half in Australia for Rahane and his Indian team. Not that it changed Rahane one bit. Not that it made him look at life any differently. Not that it made him look at the Australians any differently.
Forever mindful of not hurting anyone’s sentiments, among the first things Rahane did upon getting back home was to politely refuse cutting a cake that his apartment complex had arranged for a welcome ceremony. Simply because it had a kangaroo made of icing on top. He felt it might come across as insulting to the Australians.