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 special,” Rahane said. “Those four runs were really crucial at that time (in Durban). I know how crucial four runs are now, because a hundred is a hundred. When you get out on 96, it’s counted as a fifty.”
It’s an honest admission from a remarkably simple lad. And hard working. Those two values middle-class Maharashtrians take pride in.
The hard work was evident when he was quietly making thousands of runs in the Ranji Trophy, patiently waiting for his turn as the Indian middle-order looked impregnable. The simplicity never deserted him in the glamour of the IPL even as he prolifically scored for the Rajasthan Royals. Even now, as part of the Indian team for sometime —though on an off — his understated demeanor stands out in the crowd of brash youngsters. He idolises Rahul Dravid, but even Dravid was sophisticated. Rahane is just Rahane, in every way possible.
What he brings to the table is also unique. Unlike Pujara who is seen as Dravid’s replacement — No.3, methodical and reliable — or unlike Virat Kohli’s prolific run scoring is compared with Sachin Tendulkar, Rahane is not a pound-for-pound replacement of any of the giants. He is, perhaps, a kind of batsman India never had. He can block and assert, and switches between the two almost seamlessly, without the opposition even realising.
On Day Two, he batted with immense patience along side Virat Kohli and freed his arms without being noticed while Dhoni and then Ravindra Jadeja were smashing away.
In the 90s, alongside Zaheer Khan, he betrayed a few nerves when an edge sailed over gully, but cracked an emphatic pull off Neil Wagner to bring up his century. There was no fist-pumping or jump in the air. The helmet came off, the head tilted skywards and a silent prayer was perhaps said. The helmet came back on and Rahane cracked two more fours in the over and a massive six in the next before being caught acrobatically by Boult in the deep.
Dhawan falls two short
Earlier, Shikhar Dhawan missed out on a second successive ton by just two runs, when Tim Southee induced an edge with an out-swinger. Dhawan and Ishant shared a fifty run partnership that set the tone for a frustrating day for the hosts. And when they did get three wickets in a space of 24 runs, they ran into a determined Rahane.