In the fading light on Saturday evening, as he led the Indian team out of the dressing room to have a crack at the New Zealand batsmen, MS Dhoni might have felt he was approaching the end of a very long tunnel.
They have been in the country for over a month and have never been in this strong a position. Yes they did tie a One-dayer, but looked like losing it until the very last ball. Dhoni often complained of having to do the catching-up on the tour, here, he found his long hooked nose ahead of Brendon McCullum’s straighter, smaller one for the first time, thanks to the 246-run lead his bowlers had behind them at the beginning of the second innings.
In a way, this tunnel stretches even further back than the last one month. To the beginning of the South Africa tour late last year when this current win-less streak cross formats began. In another way, it goes almost three years back, to the summer of 2011 in the West Indies, where India won their last away Test. It has been such a long journey, it must have put doubts in the Indian players’ heads if they would ever come out at the other end of it.
If it was, indeed, a tunnel, and not a bottomless pit.
But the Indian captain is too practical a man to get too ahead of himself. There is nine wickets to take on a track that showed signs of easing out. Instead, Dhoni would have reflected on a rare satisfying day in the office. One that could have gone either way when the team were 165 for five, still 27 runs behind with the Kiwis having their tails up.
It was crucial moment and needed to be clasped at with both hands. And the man who walked out to bat, did precisely that. Ajinkya Rahane struck his maiden Test hundred, a first-patient-then-fluent 118, to signal a turning of the corner for himself and team.
Rahane weathered the initial hostility by the New Zealand bowlers as he added 63 watchful runs with Kohli to take India past New Zealand’s total. Then, with an attacking Dhoni, he shared a 120-run stand to put the team in a commanding position.
When Dhoni half-pulled, half-glanced Trent Boult to wicketkeeper BJ Watling to end his innings at 68, India were 348/7 and Rahane was at 81. Two months ago, at Durban in South Africa, the 25-year-old had missed out on a century by four runs. On Saturday, he was determined to make amends.
“In South Africa, when I got 96, I wanted to get that hundred, because the first hundred is really continued…