With an unbeaten 108 off 228 balls against a resourceful Australia A bowling firm, Ajinkya Rahane not only rescued the Indians from potential embarrassment but also offered assurance that he has put a difficult year behind him. His century, his first three-figure mark in any form or level of the game this year, navigated India to 237 for 8 at stumps after early jitters on Day One of the warm-up game at the Drummoyne Oval in Sydney.
When Rahane, India’s vice-captain in the red-ball form, strode out to the middle, India were teetering at 40 for 3, having just lost Hanuma Vihari for 15, trapped in front by Jackson Bird. The wicket had come just when Vihari and Cheteshwar Pujara had pulled India out of deep trouble after the loss of openers Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw for ducks.
Shaw, on the back of a dodgy IPL, nicked one behind to Tim Paine off James Pattinson while South Africa-born Michael Neser accounted for Gill off the very first ball he faced. But Vihari and Pujara held firm for 16 overs, neutering the new ball and preventing an outright implosion. Vihari’s wicket, though, stalled India’s recovery.
It was then down to old friends Rahane and Pujara to rebuild the innings. Both have been largely peripheral figures in post-lockdown cricket. Pujara, without an IPL franchise, had planned a county stint to shrug off rust but had to abort the trip. Rahane did have a franchise but was a peripheral figure in Delhi Capitals’ schemes. He featured in only eight games, and barring a 60 against Royal Challengers Bangalore, hardly influenced a game. His indifferent phase precedes the IPL, as he could only winkle out 91 runs in the two-Test series in New Zealand. He looked more confused than out of touch. Pujara didn’t enjoy the tour either, scoring just 100 runs in four outings.
End of Day 1: Ajinkya Rahane’s unbeaten 108, Cheteshwar Pujara’s 54 take Indians to 237/8 at stumps. pic.twitter.com/KQ6TX3fLMt
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 6, 2020
It was pertinent that the pair, so indispensable to India’s fortunes in the red-ball leg – more so in the impending absence of skipper Virat Kohli after the first Test – hit the straps at the earliest. The duo would be the batting pillars once Kohli departs after the pink-ball Test in Adelaide. So they put their heads down and grounded the bowling attack, which was far more pedigreed than what most countries would provide visitors during warm-up games. Both Pattinson and Bird have Test experience and are knocking relentlessly for the door to open again. Neser is a hardworking bowler who keeps tight lengths and lines. Youngster Cameron Green bowled with pace and extracted bounce. Rahane and Pujara, though, saw through them with grit and perseverance.
Both batted watchfully, carefully dragging India out of trouble, their 76-run partnership consuming 176 deliveries. It was only after Pujara departed, caught at leg-gully by Marcus Harris for a dogged 54 off 140 balls, and Indian batsmen resumed their hasty procession to the dressing room, that Rahane accelerated. By his standards, he crawled to his half century, which he brought up with a six off Pattinson, consuming 129 balls. Thereafter, though, he tried to score a bit quicker. He targeted part-timer Travis Head and medium-pacer Mark Steketee, who he fetched for three boundaries apiece.
Rahane found an unlikely associate in Kuldeep Yadav, after Wriddhiman Saha and Ravichandran Ashwin departed cheaply for a duck and five respectively. Yadav showed more application, rotated strike, and repelled 78 balls. The 89-run seventh-wicket stand took India closer to 200, which had seemed distant earlier in the day. Soon after Yadav’s exit, Rahane reached his hundred, his journey from 52 to 101 absorbing just 74 balls, a pace of scoring one is accustomed to seeing from Rahane.
The day ended with a flurry of boundaries, but from the blade of Umesh Yadav, whose 24 came off 18 deliveries. The seamer – his first-eleven prospects brightened by Ishant Sharma’s injury – batted with carefree gusto. He struck Pattinson for three boundaries in the space of four deliveries before smacking Neser for a six. Thereafter, Rahane put the shutters down on his scoring, just stealing singles off last balls to protect Mohammad Siraj, and ensured that India did not lose another wicket.
The visitors would look back on the day with mixed feelings. Content that Rahane has discovered some vital red-ball form and Pujara demonstrated the resoluteness that was a feature of his dream run in his previous trip to these shores, but worried about the form of youngsters Gill and Shaw.
Brief scores: India A 237/8 (Ajinkya Rahane 108*, Pujara 54; Pattinson 3-58, Neser 2-51, Travis Head 2-24) vs Australia A.