Out walked Ajinkya Rahane, the man who has fidgeted around at the crease of late and transferred his chaotic headspace to us, as if to say, ‘Are you really expecting me to bat you out of crisis on a turner?’ Utter chaos had windswept in the previous four overs. Virat Kohli was left fuming in the dressing room balcony, his lips curling into the B-word, and despondency was in the air. It grew darker when Ravindra Jadeja, promoted to disturb Nathan Lyon’s rhythm, heard the crunching sound of wood behind him. Game over? The pessimists were in for a shock though — Cheteshwar Pujara and Rahane soaked up the intense nerve-cracking pressure in an unbroken 93-run stand that yielded a lead of 126 and kept India alive and dreaming into the fourth day.
For the first time in the series, no wicket fell in a session. For the first time, Indians had added 91 runs — their highest — in a session. But to set the context, we need to return to the Kohli moment before we get to the two gamechangers. There he stood on the balcony, hands on hips, shaking his head in anger. The DRS hadn’t gone his way. It was one of those tense close calls — no one disputed the bottom edge, but was there some pad on it before that? Was it leg before bat before leg? Or was it a simultaneous collision? Endless replays rolled out. And when the big screen switched from the flickering lines of the snicko and extreme close-ups of ball, pad, bat to follow what happened to the ball after the collision, Australians erupted in the huddle. There was no question Kohli was a dead-duck if it was an lbw scenario, and even Kohli started to trudge back. It was 112 for 3, or effectively 25 for 3, and the head of the snake already cut.
Somehow, Kohli held himself together and did not explode on his walk back, and now stood there in full view. Watching him stand there in that utterly dark mood only added to the impending sense of doom. It increased when Jadeja lost his stumps to make it 120 for 4 — it was then Rahane came out to meet his old club-mate Pujara.
Two of a kind
There is a story of the duo’s love for batting — and together at that — from their days for Indian Oil in Mumbai club cricket. After another of their run-fests, a colleague had asked them: “Don’t you guys get bored?” The reply was swift: “Do you see who is sitting in the dressing room?” It was Wasim Jaffer. “Hum out ho gaye, toh poora din unka batting dekhna padega!” (If we get out, we would have to see him bat through the day). Laughter. It wasn’t said in disrespect but in admiration that Jaffer would pitch the tent in the middle for his big-daddy hundreds.
But this wasn’t for Indian Oil. This was for India. Against Australia. And this couldn’t have been mere love for batting. The stakes were higher, pressure was crazy, Rahane’s recent form had been patchy, so much so that if he denied having self-doubts about turners, it would have seemed like a lie. Pujara is a very good player of spin but had got into trouble in the first innings with his technique of pushing his hands too low on a pitch that had bouncy turn.
The situation felt grim. Danger was ever-present: Lyon ripped them across, Steve O’Keefe round-armed them in, Josh Hazlwood hurled it in and Mitch Starc would almost sling it at them. Luckily, for India, the duo shut out the blues, and stitched together a remarkable partnership. It was remarkable because they adapted to the match situation, to their own mistakes, to the Australians closing in on them, and effected a jailbreak.
The intent was the key: to not just survive but score, look busy, run for the partner, rotate the strike, tap, push, nurdle, flick, punch, sweep and keep talking to each other. Both looked really secure against the pacemen — especially after the Aussie pacers shifted their line of attack from the lbw-honing stumps line to around-off-and-outside line. It still took great skill and focus but they rose to the challenge. The interesting battle was with the spinners.
Once the intent sets the tone, the technique comes in. Pujara was the first to show the way. As soon as he came in, he stood more upright in the stance, his bat didn’t hover as close to the ground as before, and he could trust his defence a lot more. The rest of the game was rock solid as ever — the feet took him forward and back, the soft hands allowed him to counter the extra bounce or turn, the mind allowed him to focus hard and long and take the bat and gloves out of the way on those occasions when Lyon got both turn and bounce and had the ball kicking into his ribcage. The close-in fielders ooh-ed and aah-ed when they weren’t yapping at him, but he ignored them.
Once he realised that the pitch wasn’t as hard as the first two days, and Lyon wasn’t getting alarming bounce consistently and was seen using side-spin more, he relaxed his upright stance and started to get lower with his hands. The feet constantly roamed about and he almost looked like VVS Laxman out there — batting in a crisis as if there was no crisis.
Rahane’s knock was tougher and deserves high praise. Only because of the context of his recent past: He has got locked inside the crease, looked miserable outside it, body locked in awkward positions, but this was a triumph of will. With more than a little bit of help from the technique.
For starters, there was this interesting tendency to play the turning offbreak to the off side when defending even when the ball was on leg or outside it. He didn’t want to shut the bat-face early, instead he would get his bat in front of the pad, turn it towards the line of the ball, offer the full bat-face and tap it to the off. It wouldn’t have come easily for him; we have seen Mohammad Azharuddin and Javed Miandad do it before — they of course would dare to use it to get runs to scatter the field away — but Rahane was managing to defend using it.
He also brought out the sweep shot a lot more, at times pulling out of it to defend as the bowlers got wiser to it and started bowling fuller. Which helped him, as he then began to work them into angles to rotate the strike.
He even started taking stance around off stump on occasions to Lyon, especially after he got in a few tangles with the ripping off break. It allowed him to manoeuvre the ball easily — (relatively, that is) —through the gap between short-leg and backward short-leg.
Above all, it was a test of character, gumption, and guts — and both could be proud of what they did on Monday. But India needs them to do it all over again today. Who said Test cricket was easy?