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Sunday, January 17, 2021

O Captain! My Captain! Rahane’s memorable hundred puts India in charge

Rahane’s memorable hundred, leading from the front, puts India in charge as Aussie hopes flounder.

Written by Sandip G | Melbourne | Updated: December 27, 2020 11:38:19 pm

A brave and brilliant hundred from Ajinkya Rahane has fuelled India’s comeback ambitions in this series. His 12th Test century, which underlined once again his character and appetite for a scrap, was the soul and spine of India’s second-day total of 277/5. The lead already a handful at 82 runs, with Ravindra Jadeja offering manful support, India are firmly in control of proceedings.

The Indian captain’s innings was brave not because he was ever in any physical danger or he copped blows, but because of the conception of his knock. It was brilliant not because he executed a flurry of gorgeous strokes, but because he executed his plans perfectly, soaked inexorable pressure and navigated through treacherous cliffs to steer India to a position of strength. Weave in the context of the Adelaide humiliation, Virat Kohli’s departure, Mohammed Shami’s injury and the crisis India were riding in the first session, and the glitter of his 104 unbeaten runs only attains more gloss.

Rahane found India at 64/3, with Pat Cummins and Co. in inspired mood. The seamer had produced a pearler to induce a faint nick of Cheteshwar Pujara’s feeble defensive prod, after he had tempted Shubman Gill into an impetuous drive. The background was intimidating. There was an overpowering gloom. The skies were dark and imminent disaster lurked. Rahane walked out with his characteristically nervous body language, like that of a high-school rookie.

The body language is often a facade. Beneath his shaky exterior is a cascade of self-assurance and courage. He is a soldier in the guise of a priest.

For the next 10 overs or so, Rahane was monkish in his abstinence from temptation. The full balls away from the stumps were left alone, those on the body were met with the full, straight blade. The short balls at the body were doused with soft hands. Those that could be avoided were left alone. He stripped the contest into a battle of bat and ball, not a duel between two individuals. The foundation laid, the fundamentals set, he blossomed, exhibiting the full range of his batsmanship and the variegated roles he could perform.

Captivating was how various situations drew varied responses from him. First, he was the stabiliser, intent on just blunting Cummins and Mitchell Starc. Safety was the best tactic. Rahane defanged them with resolute defensive strokes, playing them late and not committing prematurely into strokes, as he is sometimes prone to.

Into his 30s, he embraced the counterpunching role. He was like a bantamweight boxer pitted against a heavyweight skull-thrasher. He weaved and spun away from the blows, and when the adversary blinked, landed meaty blows on his jaw.

Past his half-century, which he completed by flicking Starc off his legs, the skipper turned into a grisly accumulator, smuggling singles and running the hard runs. But 10 overs either side of the second new ball, he chose to be the aggressor. As the seamers sought a fuller length for reverse swing with the old ball and then the conventional variety with the new, the trickle of runs turned into a stream. Rahane allowed himself the luxury of leaning into pleasant drives and flicked away to leg on the rare occasions the diligent Australia bowlers strayed from their line down the corridor.

Barring a couple of indiscriminate strokes — a hasty swipe plonked out of Steve Smith’s hands at slip when he was on 73 — Rahane’s powers of concentration were astonishing. He was totally absorbed in his batting, a self‑contained unit who appeared unaware of the world around him. Bowlers tried to break his rhythm, shuffled their lengths, trajectory and angles, but he remained steadfast and unhindered.

Rahane, the world knows, is capable of shuffling his roles. But seldom has the process seemed so smooth. Besides the sparkling clarity of his mind, stood out the dexterity of his hands and fluency of his feet. It’s the hands that mirror his mindset. When he is uncertain, his hands tend to be hard and he goes stabbing at the ball. When he’s confident, his hands are pliant and he waits for the ball to reach him. It affords him time to play his strokes.

A dab off Starc best illustrated his gifts. The ball was slanted across him at a hard length with a fair bit of bounce. But Rahane got on top of the bounce, and opened the face of the bat without any exaggerated wrist movement and steered it between slip and gully. Even when he drove, he seldom threw his hands at the ball or lunged forward but just extended his forward push a bit further. The follow-through was non-existent. He is anyway not one for the cameras — even his century celebration was muted. Forget being over-jubilant, he didn’t even smile. His feet never move excessively, but every stride was firm and decisive.

Under his guidance blossomed Rishabh Pant and Jadeja, with whom he shared stands of 57 and 104 (unconquered) respectively. Pant was given the liberty to attack, and so he did, quickly whittling down the lead. Though he eventually perished attempting a wild slash, his cameo was significant in the context of the game. Jadeja was more wary and controlled. His assurance meant that Rahane needn’t pursue undue risk as he is sometimes needed in the company of lower-order batsmen. And when the new ball winked in, run-scoring opportunities ringed in.

As the day wore on, it was not easy to discern whether it was the pitch or the Australian body language which had become flatter. Arms were folded, hands thrust in pockets and shoulders sagged. Dropped catches and edges that eluded tore their morale apart. But in the dressing room, they could console themselves that they were not undone by their own lack of effort, but outshone by the bravado and brilliance of Rahane.

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