There are a number of anomalies about Ajinkya Rahane that separate him from your everyday Indian Test batsman. For instance, in an age and time when Indian batsmen flourish on home soil and come a cropper overseas, Rahane averages 55.34 abroad and 39.68 at home. That does not mean he is a poor player of spin, though. Ask Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera or Malinda Pushpakumara. The Mumbaikar has silken wrists and even better feet, that force the spinners dance to his tunes.
As the Sinhalese Sports Club darkened, so did Sri Lanka's hopes on Day 1 of the second Test match. Two of India's best Test batsmen in all conditions were unbeaten, flowing and dominating.
That Cheteshwar Pujara and Rahane, known for their tendency to go dogged, were picking them off for easy runs on a turning track tailor-made for Sri Lanka's triumvirate of spinners was an anomaly in itself.
Couple this with the fact that out of Rahane’s 12 boundaries in the 103 he compiled on Day 1, every single front foot boundary was alternated by one on the back foot. It gives away the game plan that Rahane brought to this Test.
The plan was clear, simple yet near unbreakable.
He would push the spinners to bowl shorter by stepping out and creaming them, then rock back into the crease to cut or pull them. There was little respite for the Lankan spinners, who appeared more bamboozled than the Indian batsmen who faced Ajantha Mendis for the first time in the Asia Cup a few years ago.
Herath and Co were unsure of their lines, lengths and strategy against a couple of batting masters of spin bowling. While Pujara thrived on his new-found positivity and intent, Rahane was happy to play second-fiddle but never stopped rotating strike.
India were 133/3 shortly after lunch, before which they enjoyed a happy morning session. The likes of KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli were back in the hut and one could sense the Lankan lions buzzing. The first ball Rahane faced was meekly defended and up went a chorus of 'oohs' and 'ahhs' from the close-in catchers — a sign that the Lankans were smelling another wicket.
But few balls later, Rahane camped on his back foot and used his mellow wrists to caress Herath through mid-wicket. It was a sign of things to come. Considered one of India's best overseas batsmen, Rahane had gone through a rough patch since his 188 against the Kiwis in Indore almost a year ago. There was self-doubt, dodgy footwork and unsure defence — all of which was exploited by the English and Aussies, while the likes of Pujara and Kohli made merry.
An even poorer IPL campaign followed despite his team finishing runners-up. Critics popped up out of every nook and corner and everything from his sporty new beard to his lack of Kohli-ish brashness was criticised.
He was slammed as unwanted in the limited-overs side and slept through the Champions Trophy before waking back to form in the Caribbean, opening the innings. There was still uncertainty and self-doubt but there was little doubting that Rahane handled the sluggish West Indian wickets better than most Indian stalwarts.
At that point, it made sense to debate 'what could have been' if Rahane had manned India’s middle-order in that fateful Champions Trophy final at the Lord's.
That is the thing about unassuming, 'less-in-the-spotlight' players. They keep contributing without hogging the focus, but accolades always fall on the more flamboyant colleagues. But when the chips are down, a question of 'what could have been' always lingers.
There was no doubting Rahane's role, though, at Colombo today. He was in sublime touch and proceeded to a half-century partnership in the company of Pujara, with runs coming at nearly the same rate as the number of balls bowled.
The Pune Supergiant opener stepped down the track a couple of times to lift the spinners inside out or over long-on to establish his authority over them. Even as dark clouds crowded over the stadium, Rahane lit up the environment with his nimble footwork and caressing drives. Such was his control over proceedings that he was already ready in his front or back foot when the ball landed. Soon after the hundred run stand was breached, Rahane compiled his half-century off 83 balls, his second fifty on this tour.
When Nuwan Pradeep returned to the attack, he was greeted with the sweetest of cover drives along the carpet that hit the ropes with a thud and bounced over. As Pujara notched up his third successive ton against Sri Lanka and Rahane continued to torment the Lankans with his back-and-forth tactic, it was inevitable that the duo would be compared to Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.
Much akin to the flamboyant Hyderabadi, Rahane is such a sheer force in the middle-order for India in Tests, with his neat wrist play and sound judgement outside the off-stump. Not once during his knock did Rahane look uncomfortable at the wicket. From Pradeep to Herath, everyone seemed to be bowling like Karunaratne's mild outswingers as Rahane meted out shot after shot.
He raced to a hundred by the end of the day, his ninth in Test cricket and sixth overseas. That his stroke making was spread out made things even more difficult. As many as 26 runs came through the covers with a further 34 in the 'V’ behind the bowler. 17 were scored behind square on the leg-side and 18 through mid-wicket as Rahane covered all gaps in the field with needle like precision.
As Rahane hit the ground on day 2, a sense of a double hundred on offer definitely loomed. Even as Pujara fell to the harmless dibbly-dobbly Karunaratne, there was a feeling that Rahane wouldn't mess up his big chance. Not once during his 63-run stand with Ravichandran Ashwin did Rahane look out of sorts. All signs pointed to another Indore-like knock.
But when he put his dancing shoes on against debutant (but experienced domestic stalwart) Pushpakumara, he missed the ball completely to be stumped for 132. More than the 132 he earned, the 68 he missed will linger in his mind. Still, Rahane's reputation as an overseas giant keeps growing.