It has been a wretched run of Test form since August 2017 for India's vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane. In 17 Tests, since his 132 at Colombo's SSC ground, he has averaged under 25 runs per innings with just five half centuries in 28 innings, and no centuries to his name. It would be obvious that there would be pressure on him given he is Virat Kohli's second-in-command and that there is a tussle for spots in the Indian middle order.
It didn't really help his cause that the downturn in form also coincided with three difficult away tours to South Africa, England and Australia, though he did play a rescuing hand at Trent Bridge with an innings of 81 runs as he partnered with his captain that led to India's lone win of the series. It was then once again a rescuing hand of 81 runs at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua from Rahane that allowed India to hang in the contest by their very fingernails as rain brought an early finish to the day.
As Kemar Roach seamed his way to provide two early jolts, and Kohli's aggressive approach laid waste to him, Rahane walked in to join KL Rahul who would then be hit on the elbow and receive another painful blow, this time to the groin. Confident partner to tide over some early overs jitters for a batsman playing Tests after 7 months and having endured poor form? Not really.
Rahane had actually taken the initiative, looking ahead to this series, when he realised he wasn't going to be part of India's World Cup plans, and signed a contract with English county Hampshire. Though he opened his county stint with a second innings century — reliving a feeling he had not had in a while, his form didn't really kick on from there. Just one more score of note in another six first class matches and an average under 24. However, he said it "helped" him as he was batting at No 3 and facing the Dukes ball, and that allowed him to "play close to the body" and "play straight", a couple of the things he had wanted to work on before the international grind began again.
Rahane by nature and technique does not use a long stride, like Kohli, to get on the front foot. He prefers to stay back or make smaller feet movements to get into position to play his strokes. He has always had a gorgeous on-drive but his work in Hampshire was accentuated when, amidst the ruins of three early wickets, he punched a few delectable straight drives past the bowler but the slowness of the outfield prevented most of them from being boundaries, so one can't re-watch them on highlights packages. Quite appropriate for an understated guy whose spot was under question.
With India trying the opening combination of Mayank Agarwal and Rahul for the second time, the responsibility of scoring "bulk of the load" of the runs, as Kohli mentioned pre-match, was going to be down to himself, Pujara and Rahane as "senior batsmen in Test cricket". With two of the three back in the pavilion within the first 10 overs, it was down to Rahane to rediscover form, shepherd Rahul, combat the early seam movement on offer, and ensure India get a decent first innings total that allows their more-than-capable bowlers a chance to draw parity at the end of two innings with West Indies. No pressure.
But first things first. As Rahane said, he and Rahul "needed to get the partnership going" and "be positive and stay focused." The goal wasn't just to tide over the early sideways movement and survive, but to also score runs whenever possible, and be sure footed whether they "were leaving or defending" the ball.
There was a measured pull, an enjoyable square drive when given width, and a trademark punch down the ground when the length was too full, all for boundaries, all off the rapid Shannon Gabriel. Rahane hit a sumptuous cover drive and a fierce cut for fours off the wrecker-in-chief Roach. He finessed the steady Jason Holder for a trio of boundaries. However, he did survive a chance on 40 when a leading edge off Roston Chase evaded the desperate hands of Miguel Cummins at mid on. Sometimes, a lucky break is what is needed to come out of a bad patch, and perhaps this allows Rahane to turn the corner.
He did eventually perish to Gabriel off an inside edge that found the stumps. He did admit later on that he anticipated the question of not having scored a ton in two years but he was "not too worried or concerned about" missing the personal landmark that has eluded him and it did not matter "as long as [he was] contributing [to his] team." The triple figure would come to him "automatically as long as [he is] at the crease and thinking about [his] batting."
As he navigated India through troubled waters and a "tricky pitch", Rahane believed that his innings of 81 runs was a "very crucial" knock that allowed India to get in to a "decent position". With Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja at the crease, India have managed to wedge open the door slightly, but Rahane's innings has certainly ensured India have avoided — for the moment — the fate that met England seven months ago on this very ground.