At his pre-match press conference, Ajinkya Rahane was asked a question that was unusual but not surprising given how India’s cricket is popularly narrated. Rahane was asked if he would be asking outgoing captain Virat Kohli for advice through the rest of the series.
This is not about the Kohli obsession, though. This is about Rahane. He didn’t find it or offensive or disrespectful. If he did, he didn’t show it. Nor did he say it was his team for the remaining three Tests and he didn’t need advice from outside. And it wasn’t as though he was going to take into a diametrically opposite direction. Wary of headlines perhaps. “I wouldn’t like to disturb him,” Rahane said like a polite student. The other predominant query was around running Kohli out. He repeated he had apologised to Kohli and he was okay with it. He said Kohli also had a chat with the team before he left.
It was as though those watching the cricket would rather a cardboard cut-out of Kohli than Rahane, and that is not Kohli’s fault. He just does what he believes is best for his cricket, and that happens to be what a lot of people believe and a lot of people prefer to watch.
Could there be a worse time to take over for Rahane? He ran out his captain, which became the image of the Adelaide defeat. He was now going to be without Kohli the batsman and two of his first-choice bowlers. Most importantly, though, he was not coming in with that amazing confidence of runs behind him.
The last three years, when Rahane really should have blossomed, have been more about finding himself. That he was dropped at the start of the South Africa tour in early 2018 was not perhaps as hurtful as the lack of second thought around it. When he came back, he played a crucial part in India’s fortunes-turning Test win at Wanderers, scoring a dominating 48 after India had fallen behind in the first innings in a low-scoring Test. Then all of a sudden he was India’s No. 4 in ODIs too. Only to be discarded a series later, unsure when the next question marks would emerge.
Since then, even though he had a hand in India’s wins at Trent Bridge and Adelaide Oval in 2018, Rahane has not been that dominating Test batsman he had been. Any failure – which is part of life in cricket than success – gets magnified. Like Cheteshwar Pujara, he doesn’t get too many chances at making comebacks as he plays in just the one format. One of those two is perennially under the scanner. Rahane makes it worse for himself because he puts himself through the struggle of a format he is not suited to, but that is his choice and he should continue fighting in the IPL as long as he has teams willing to play him. But there is a school of thought that that leaves his Test game unsure.
It was in this light that Rahane began the series, only to run Kohli out and wear the look of a man doomed to publicly atone for his sins. That’s not how sport works. Two errors followed, and he became the most culpable – “look, no feet” – part of a once-in-a-generation collapse. Rahane said he didn’t want to think about all that, but live in the moment. In a way perhaps it was good. The only way now was up.
Come MCG, and there was no hangover of Adelaide either in the field or with the bat. That belief that Australia could be bowled out cheaply again if they bowled well and to their plans shone through. That it would be down to their batting again. And that, with some luck, they could get into a position similar to the first innings in Adelaide once again against this excellent attack.
Within the first hour it was down to Rahane to arrest another collapse. That advantage Rahane had was that in their contrasting styles, Shubman Gill and Pujara had exhausted the first spells of the quicks. He played like a man who backed himself, bucking a discernible trend where he looks for an early boundary or two and provides bowlers a chance. In the last three years, no Indian batsman has hit more not-in-control boundaries in the first 30 balls of an innings than Rahane. In this series, though, he has registered two of his lowest scores after facing 25 balls: 1 and 3.
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This is also counter to the criticism against defensive batting: that you will eventually get one with your name on it so better get scoring. The proof of this pudding was in front of Rahane already: Pujara’s defensive innings had made sure Pat Cummins had put in an eight-over spell in the morning. It had made it slightly easier for Rahane; he would have liked for it to be even easier by playing out Josh Hazlewood too.
Soon the instinct took over, and he started to put away every loose ball. Analysis showed his interception points were further down the pitch, which probably was the case, but they were comparing an off drive in his 70s against tired bowlers to his dismissal on nought against bowlers who had the bit between their teeth. It is not as if there weren’t any errors. This is Test batting against a quality attack in testing conditions. Errors are bound to happen, but his control percentage of 88 was remarkable.
Once he was in, the dominating Rahane was back. From 17 off 59, he broke free with a pull and kept scoring at an even pace. Test batting was fun once again. Every slight error – and now he had gone into the second string of Nathan Lyon and Cameron Green – was now punished. By the time Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja batted with Rahane, he knew he had the opportunity to push home the advantage. Rahane matched Pant stroke for stroke, and outscored Jadeja.
The display was an education for someone like the debutant Gill. “The way he was so patient [was amazing],” Gill said. “This knock was all about patience. More importantly when you are playing such a high-quality bowling attack, sometimes you go into a shell and not able to score runs. And the way Ajinkya bhai played, it was such a magnificent knock to watch from outside. Those tough periods. How to see off those periods. And then he was making sure he put all the loose balls away.”
Thanks to his hundred, India now stand one session of batting short of batting Australia out of this Test. Just imagine the magnitude of this achievement: three first-choice players missing, the shock of 36 all out, losing the toss, in an away venue against one of the best attacks of all time, and to be in this position. It will be difficult to stay in the moment.
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