Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane are products of India’s oldest and proudest batting institute: Mumbai. They’re separated by a year in age, and pretty much rose up the cricketing ranks together, from the state under-19 days to eventually cracking the big leagues.
Rohit and Rahane have done a lot of batting together.
Even if you ignore all their years of formative cricket, and all the time they’ve accompanied each other in the middle for Mumbai across competitions, their combined resume is pretty sizeable.
In the 52 ODIs they’ve played together, they have been at the crease at the same point on 24 occasions, and had five associations of 100+ runs – they average 47.37 per stand in 50-overs cricket for India.
Even in T20Is, they have kept each other company at the top of the order a fair few times, opening the batting for India in the 2014 World T20 final as well as the 2016 World T20 semi-final.
In Tests, Rohit and Rahane had been part of the same Indian XI a total of 24 times prior to Saturday, and been together in the middle on 17 occasions – but never managed a 100-run partnership.
When they did greet each other at the centre of Ranchi’s JSCA International Stadium on Saturday morning, India were amidst teething problems for perhaps the first time in the ongoing series.
Despite having lost the toss yet again – a scarcely-believable 10-in-a-row in Asia, this time despite their new ‘tactics’ – the Proteas, armed with three genuine fast bowlers this time, made more than the most of the opening hour to rock the Indian batting line for the first time in three first-day attempts this series.
At 39 for 3, South Africa weren’t just sniffing at an opening. One more wicket, and they would be into India’s lengthy non-specialists (labelling Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha as a ‘tail’ would be a gross misrepresentation, and an injustice too), with a ball that was still moving around even after 15 overs.
India had amassed above 450 on eight of the last 10 instances they had batted first in home Tests, but the two exceptions were innings where they folded up for 189 (vs Australia, Bengaluru, 2017) and 172 (vs Sri Lanka, Kolkata, 2017) – and it wouldn’t have been a stretch to imagine a similar score if another wicket fell within half an hour of Virat Kohli’s departure.
That’s when the duo from Mumbai – both capable of magic and mastery in equal measure – joined forces.
The result? We don’t have a final answer yet, because they went back to the hut undefeated. But if you were hoping for a dent, and a correction of the gaping hole in their Test partnership record, here it is: a 185 runs, unbeaten, from just 42.3 overs, at a rate of 4.35 runs per over.
Already, it is India’s highest-ever fourth-wicket stand in Tests against South Africa (bettering the 178 Rahane added with Kohli in the last game at Pune). In addition, of the 115 stands of 175 or more in Tests in India, only 15 have been made at a faster rate.
Quite the maiden century stand then, isn’t it? A finer reading of their Test partnership numbers, however, will tell you it was coming. While they hadn’t touched three figures as a pair in the longest form, and averaged a shade below 40 per partnership, Rohit and Rahane had shared six 50+ associations in 17 attempts.
The venues of their six half-century partnerships prior to the opening day of Ranchi Test? Auckland, Southampton, Brisbane, Colombo, Gros Islet and Melbourne. So grafting runs out in potentially alien environs wasn’t all that alien to the duo.
At home, though, they averaged less than 25 runs per partnership from six stands together. How well did they course-corrected through the afternoon at Ranchi!
Individually, as well as in tandem, Rohit and Rahane combined meticulousness with maverick-ability, getting India out of a hole, and eventually putting them in a position of ascendancy.
There was resolve: Rohit patiently prodded along to 17 off the first 49 balls he faced in the morning, while Rahane scored 11 of the 20 balls he survived before lunch. Rohit would also navigate past the Rabada threat, taking only 12 off 35 deliveries from a bowler he had lost his wicket to on four occasions in just over 100 balls coming into this game.
But there were ample dollops of robustness: Rohit continued marauding Dane Piedt, clobbering three sixes off the hapless off-spinner, including the one to bring up three figures for the third time this series – only the second Indian opener to achieve the distinction, the first being Sunil Gavaskar.
Rohit, who has already hit 11 sixes from 87 deliveries he’s faced off Piedt; since 2001, only two batsmen have hit more sixes off one particular bowler – Adam Gilchrist off Daniel Vettori (17) and Ben Stokes off Nathan Lyon (13). The difference? Gilchrist faced more than 350 balls from Vettori, while Stokes has taken guard to Lyon on nearly 600 occasions.
Now that we’re speaking of rampant batting, how do we ignore possibly the most telling of the attacks during the 185-run partnership? Rabada, in his fiery burst through the morning, had registered figures of 7-4-15-2. Faf du Plessis kept him on after the lunch break, sensing a potential opening. Rahane, however, had other ideas – and Rabada’s next three overs went for 27. One over later, Rabada's spell was brought to a halt. Du Plessis had to go about trying to shuffle the rest of his pack.
Rahane, meanwhile, had shot up from 11 off 20 to 40 off 42 – and allowed himself the time to negate spin, which has been a common failing for him off late at home.
Individually, these are massive innings for Rohit and Rahane.
Rohit might have got the twin hundreds in his first Test as opener, but he would have known better than others that Vizag gave him the perfect platform for an untroubled beginning to the second lease in Tests. At Ranchi, on the other hand – coming as it did when Mayank Agarwal and Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli fell to probing pace in front of him – will be a knock that instills in him the confidence to repeat the same when he takes guard on tougher shores.
For Rahane, his 83 not out is already his highest score at home since the 188 against New Zealand at Indore in October 2016. In the last three years, while he has been a regular in the XI, the Indian Test vice-captain had averaged 26.95 in 25 innings at home prior to Saturday – and fallen for less than 30 in 18 of those innings.
In unison, the big bats from the West allowed India to look north from a southwards start in the East of the country. When they bat the way they did today in Ranchi, it’s a union that has what it takes to do special things in all directions, in all corners.