Virat Kohli was batting beautifully at Adelaide Oval when Ajinkya Rahane pushed one to mid-off, called for a run, then sent Kohli back. To add to India’s miseries, Rahane fell shortly afterwards, wasting a review in the process. Kohli’s wicket had triggered a collapse from which India never recovered. They lost 16 wickets for 92 runs across two innings, and with that, the Test match.
But that was far from the only challenge Rahane was up against. India had been ridiculed after being bowled out for a record low of 36 at Adelaide. They had lost after securing a 53-run lead. India, already without Ishant Sharma, also lost Mohammed Shami to an injury. And there was no Kohli either. India drafted in four players, two of them debutants.
His personal form had not been the best, either. Between 2016 and the start of the Melbourne Test, Rahane had averaged under 30 in each of Australia, England, New Zealand, and South Africa – and under 40 even in India. Additionally, he had batted only once in the top four outside the subcontinent and the West Indies in his entire Test career.
And here, he came out at 61/2, and lost Cheteshwar Pujara on 64. Pat Cummins was in no mood to relent on accuracy or hostility. There was no respite at the other. He suffered from back pain during the innings. He was hit on the body. The odds had been stacked against him in every possible way.
It was not an easy innings. The concept of wearing down a bowling attack of that pedigree is never easy, for the basic premise of that approach lies on waiting for the rare bad ball one can put away – and this attack is not likely to bowl any. Pujara’s performance from two seasons ago has gone down in history books as among the greatest in history, but it was more of an aberration.
Rahane dug in. The first step was to take India to 196. Hanuma Vihari was the last of specialist batsmen – though one cannot deny the fact that batting skills played key role behind the inclusion of both Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja.
It was not an easy start. Rahane’s edge off Cummins fell short of Tim Paine. He survived a leg-before appeal from Cam Green. The first run took him 17 balls. His first boundary came off the outside edge – though his soft hands ensured there was no catch. And the last ball before tea, off Nathan Lyon, took his bat but dropped between the two close-in fielders on the leg-side.
He was on a not-too-confident 10 not out, off 42 balls, at tea. India were 90/3, still with a marginal advantage. Australia had restricted their post-Pujara progress to a crawl, but Rahane had helped India weather the first storm: Cummins did not get another wicket in that lethal spell.
The liberating stroke came about half an hour after tea. Josh Hazlewood (whose 21 overs in the day went for 44), bowled a rare short-pitched ball, and Rahane pulled for four. Until then he had scored 16 in 59 balls. The next 34 took another 52. By then India had turned the tables back on Australia.
The counterattack was led by Pant, who continued with his excellent run on Australian soil. Pant had been India’s second-highest run-scorer in 2018-19; he had scored at least 25 every time he batted on that tour; and he scored a scintillating hundred in the tour match just ahead of the ongoing Test series before being left out at Adelaide.
India were 135/4. There was little point in hanging around, for all four Australian bowlers were capable of taking a couple of Indian wickets in an over and make inroads through a batting line-up with three rank tail-enders. Someone had to take the attack to the Australian camp to change the momentum.
That charge came from Pant, against Cummins. The pull was effortlessly authoritative. He was not in control of the attempted drive two balls later, but he had made his intentions clear. And then he played a gorgeous stroke off Lyon, off the back foot to the extra-cover fence.
This eased the pressure off Rahane, for Australia retreated a bit, opting to take a safer course instead of going flat out. And as that happened, Rahane took control. He lost Pant, but he got to his fifty with a delightful leg-glance off Mitchell Starc.
He rode his luck on a couple of occasions. On 57, an edge flew to what would have been first slip – but Pant and Rahane had made sure Australia could not afford to keep a fielder there. On 74, he was dropped by Steven Smith at second slip. But he marched on. And he was dropped by Travis Head at gully off the last ball of the day.
In between, Rahane found an ally in Jadeja, who matched his captain in determination, curbing his natural instincts, hitting only one four off 104 balls, but ensuring he was around at stumps. This was not a one-off performance, for he averages 56.38 since the start of 2018. Only Rohit Sharma (56.92) averages more for India over this period, that too marginally.
In the end, however, the day belonged to Rahane, who lifted India from 64/3, took them through the doldrums with Vihari, took a backseat when Pant counterattacked, and took charge once Jadeja arrived. The first two stands were worth 52 and 57; the third, 104 and counting.
How far can he help India stretch their 82-run lead?
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Given the nature of the last few series between these teams, it would be naive to think too far ahead; but all factors considered, India will know they have some clawing back to do when they step out at the SCG on day two.
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Check out photos from the drawn third Test between hosts Australia and India at the Sydney Cricket Ground, which concluded on Monday.