The ongoing tour of South Africa has been a learning curve for the young Indian side all the way so far. They stumbled over a couple of hurdles in the initial stages of the tour which resulted in the Test series falling out of their grasp. However, the Virat Kohli-led team managed to get back on their feet and pull off a couple of impressive performances, justifying their status as a top quality side across formats.
While India's hard-fought win in the third Test of the series in Johannesburg – where they put up admirable performances on one of the toughest pitches witnessed in recent times – will perhaps remain a talking point long after the tour gets over, their domination of the first one-dayer at Durban saw them go one step ahead, and outplay the Proteas in all three departments to stroll to a six-wicket victory.
The Kingsmead win was memorable for a number of reasons. It was a game that was initially set up by wrist spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, both of whom repaid the team management's faith that had been put into their selections. It brought to a screeching halt South Africa's 17-match winning streak in ODIs played on home soil, a run that stretched back to the five-match series against England in 2016. The win was also India's first against South Africa at Kingsmead, where they had previously played a total of seven games.
However, one of the more important takeaways for the Indians from the match would have been captain Kohli slamming his 33rd ODI ton, Ajinkya Rahane riding on a wave of confidence to produce a fluent innings worth 79 runs, and the two top guns producing yet another noteworthy stand, one that in this case turned a competitive chase into a walk in the park.
The going hasn't been easy for either batsman in this tour. Kohli, for all his credentials as the best across formats among the current lot, had been under a lot of flak for his failures with the bat in the first two Tests, with his critics using terms such as 'flat-track bully' and adjectives such as 'overrated' quite freely.
Even a diligent 153 at Centurion, one that should've kept his doubters at bay, was forgotten over India's surrender of the trophy. While he topped the run-scoring charts in the Test series, he needed a solid, match-winning knock to reassert himself as a force to be reckoned with, and it finally arrived on Thursday.
Test vice-captain Rahane did not have the best of runs in 2017. Despite scoring four half-centuries as an opener in the ODI series against Australia, he was dropped in the subsequent series against New Zealand as Shikhar Dhawan returned to the top of the order alongside Rohit Sharma.
The New Zealand snub was followed by a horror run in the Sri Lanka Test series at home — in which he reached double figures just once in the entire series. That was bound to bring him down the pecking order as far as the middle-order slot in the Test side was concerned, and despite his overseas credentials, Rahane lost his place to Rohit for the first two Tests in South Africa.
If his gritty 48 in the second innings of the Wanderers Test — at a time when the pitch was at its deadliest — was anything to go by, it was that the Mumbai batsman had finally found his rhythm after a lean patch back home. His 79 in his latest outing at Durban was a hallmark of his patience as well as his intent at the crease. Rahane perhaps wanted to send out a message very clearly to the team think tank — that he was of worth in the Indian middle-order in coloured clothing as well, and that he shouldn't be treated as a reserve opener alone.
It also brought back into the discussion the understanding that is shared between Kohli and Rahane at the crease, one that has led to many a massive partnership, especially in Test cricket. With Rohit and Dhawan back in the dressing room with 67 on board in the Durban ODI, it required Kohli and Rahane to handle the situation with maturity in order to ease the nerves in the Indian camp.
Rahane, in this case, was happy to let Kohli get the quick runs on the board while he played the anchor's role from the other end. That was until he charged down the track against Imran Tahir at the start of the 32nd over, and launched the leg-spinner towards the mid-wicket boundary to collect his first six, and effectively break free from his patient approach. The six off Rahane's bat, as well as the flurry of boundaries that followed, helped tilt the balance of the game in India's favour, with the Proteas playing catch-up for the remainder of the match.
The two seasoned individuals exhibited another masterclass at the art of handling pressure and constructing a chase, although it was a shame neither stuck around till the very end to hit the winning runs, the honour of which went to decorated finisher MS Dhoni.
Kohli and Rahane are quite the pair in the Test arena. When asked about his favourite batting partners in the widely-watched episode of Breakfast with Champions, Rahane, or 'Jinx' as he chose to refer to him, was the name that came to Kohli's mind when it came to the red-ball format. Given the heaps of runs that the two have scored together over the years, it hardly comes as a surprise.
The two might not quite have the legacy of a Dhoni-Yuvraj Singh, or a Sachin Tendulkar-Sourav Ganguly yet, but the two surely are well on their way towards finding themselves in that elite list down the road. The pair already have accumulated nearly 4,000 runs together across formats for India, with as many as 10 century partnerships to their credit. The fact that they average more than 50 in both Tests (58.83) and ODIs (54.17) lends further credibility to that statement. Who can forget the resistance they showed at the MCG back in the 2014-15 season, or the run-fest that was the 365-run stand at Indore against New Zealand in the 2016 home season?
While they have earned their fame as a Test batting pair, the current dynamics of Indian cricket unfortunately doesn't quite get the pair together in white-ball cricket. However, Rahane is getting into his stride once again in ODIs, this time at a position that he certainly wasn't considered a contender for in recent months.
With the fine half-century in Durban, he has given the selectors a solid reason to back him at that role for the coming months, especially since the current series might be seen as one of the first exercises towards building India's core as well as finding the right combinations in the long build-up to the 2019 World Cup.
Should he get the kind of backing for the middle-order as someone like Rohit did for the most part in his career, who knows, maybe we will see 'Cheeku' and 'Jinx' churn out match-winning stands in the shorter formats a lot more regularly after all.