The Ajinkya Rahane gem seized the initiative and breathed life into an innings that had gone into limbo. And the Rahane-Kohli association against this excellent Australian bowling was perhaps Test cricket at its best….
It was not as bad as 8 for 2, but the Australians were quite on top. It had taken them a while to break through, 33 overs in fact. But, the Indians were far from back in the game.
In those 33 overs just 74 runs had been added. Cheteshwar Pujara had just been dismissed for a 103-ball 24. The sublime Virat Kohli had started with a flurry of strokes, racing through to 18 off just 10 deliveries. Since then he had been rather subdued, now having battled to a 100-ball 43. He was cautious, even letting go of more Nathan Lyon deliveries than he has ever done in his career.
True, at no stage had Kohli looked unduly troubled. Circumspect, yes. Harried, no. Yet, the runs were being scored at a trickle and the pressure was quite enormous. The Australian total was not a bad one. It would take some doing to get close to it, especially given the rate at which India were scoring and the fact that four Number 11s were stacked up from No 8.
The bowlers were on top, perhaps because they were not being taken on. The Australian attack, in any case, is one of the best of the world. Mitchell Starc had just picked up his second wicket. Pat Cummins had been bowling a terrific line to Kohli. Josh Hazlewood had dismissed KL Rahul with a swinging yorker, had been taken for runs in the initial Kohli onslaught, but had come back to bowl some testing overs.
Ajinkya Rahane has not been at his best for a long, long time. There have been occasional flashes of class, such as during the 48 at Johannesburg and the 81 at Nottingham. But on the whole the last year has been a hundred-less horror during which he has struggled more often than not. He has averaged in his 20s.
It was of paramount importance for him to come good here. For his own sake, to carry on the form that he showed in the second innings at Adelaide. For the sake of the Indian side who would dearly like to cling on to the hard-earned advantage in the series. For the sake of his captain who would definitely appreciate not having to be the one-man army yet again.
Rahane knew that this was different from Adelaide. There the circumstances had been difficult. India had batted first and both the sides had been dismissed for relatively low scores. There had been plenty of time in the match, the surface had not been conducive to stroke play and patience had been the key element.
Here, with the innings having gone into a limbo of sorts, the initiative was necessary to breathe life into the effort. Else there was every chance of the Australians applying enough pressure to choke the visitors into implosion.
Patience and slow approach have its place in Test cricket. But the onus is always on making runs. The scoreboard had not really ticked in a while. And when Rahane came in, that was exactly what he was intent on making sure.
They did not quite pepper him with short balls. It is quite well known that Rahane is one of the few Indian batsmen who enjoy that sort of attack. But there were quite a few deliveries that pitched in the bowler’s half during the early part of his innings. And Rahane took them on.
Off the very third delivery he faced, he pulled Mitchell Starc for two. Not the best stroke in terms of control, but he was intent on wresting the initiative. Another bouncer followed, and another swivel to pull. This was gloved, and luckily went fine.
Then Cummins, in the middle of a fantastic spell, bowled short. Rahane cut over the infielders, and it raced to the fence. The next ball was pitched up and it was flicked through the on side for three.
There were a couple of edgy moments. When Starc ran in and pitched just short of length, Rahane was for a moment or two too eager to hammer him through the off. But the manner of response to short balls had kept the bowlers interested. Starc predictably dug one in, erred in his line, and Rahane smartly deflected it cross-batted to the fine leg boundary.
The following over saw Starc repeating the short stuff. This time it was marginally outside off. And Rahane threw the proverbial kitchen sink at it. The uppercut flew over the cordon towards the vacant third man and went the distance. Rahane had raced to 23 from 22 balls and the score was 108 for 3. The enormous pressure that had been built up, and piled on further with the dismissal of Pujara, had now been countered.
The aggressive intent had rubbed off on the skipper as well. Kohli now latched on to a short one from Cummins, cut it over gully to bring up his half-century. Runs, the currency with which Test cricket, or any form of cricket, is won or lost, were coming freely now, not on second thought and as a nice-to-have commodity.
Having obtained this stirring start, Rahane settled down. The nerves were in control. The aggression was mixed with caution. The ideal method of Test match batting without hovering on either of the two extremes. Unnecessary risks were cut out. But again, when Hazlewood pitched short Rahane rocked back and pulled him to the fence with élan . The bowlers had plenty to think about now, they could not bring out every possible weapon in their arsenal without the chance of it backfiring. That had been the case earlier, but Rahane had altered that.
The legendary Kohli drives were also ringing out by now. Hazlewood was dispatched through mid-on, Cummins saw his fuller delivery bisect cover and mid-off. And Rahane, having demonstrated the way to take on the short deliveries, now unfurled his own brand of driving. Starc was dismissed through the covers with panache and style. Hazlewood was met with a straight bat that saw the ball speed past the bowler and race to the bottom of the sightscreen at full tilt. Hazlewood tried to alter his length and the resulting short ball was cannoned over the slips for four.
The scoring rate was not as hurtlingly quick as it had been at the start of his innings. But Rahane got his magnificent half-century in 95 balls. A gem of a knock.
The Rahane-Kohli association has taken the score to 172 for 3. They have added 90 so far. Kohli, untroubled and classy has moved to 82.
This association was perhaps Test cricket at its very best. Four excellent bowlers steaming in, three pacemen of high quality on a fast, grassy track and a fantastic spinner who knows exactly how to bowl in these conditions. And two classy batsmen taking them on, both with the ability to attack and defend with equal dexterity, both of whom can move front or back to deal with the vagaries of length and bounce on such a surface. It was a battle of high quality, something that makes the format what it is.
Given the way the two finished the day, signs must be ominous for the Australians. But they do know that one more wicket and it is down to youngsters Hanuma Vihari and Rishabh Pant … followed by the pace bowling quartet. Hence, the match is still very much in balance.
More importantly, there is a mouth-watering possibility of a second helping of this delightful fare that was on display today.