It’s from Ajinkya Rahane’s feet that the beholder can gauge his form. When he’s struggling, his front foot doesn’t fully press forward, he’s more on his heels and the knee doesn’t bend much, the back knee twisted and crease-stuck. As a result, his entire game falls apart – he stretches his arms and tries to reach for the ball. Likewise, when is playing off the back foot, his front leg ends up far more across than his off-balance back leg, disturbing his balance. Here again, he ends up reaching out for the ball.
It’s a completely different story when he’s in form. The front-foot stride is definite and decisive – though he is not a believer of an elongated stride like Murali Vijay – and the back leg follows the front one when the weight is transferred onto the stroke. When playing off the back foot, the back leg is already across and firm. The contrast, in essence, was the difference between Rahane’s batting in both innings here, the first wherein he perished, to much self-loathing, to a loose drive miles outside the off-stump. In the second, a much more positive pattern of feet movement guaranteed him an invaluable 70, not career-defining but a catalyst to achieving the gold standard yardstick of the past.
It was an opportune time to reconquer his form – it has not been an obnoxious struggle, like he was on a string of ducks, but there was something shaky about him. He would get starts and then get out unexpectedly. An odd 80 here, a fighting 40 there, it wouldn’t have sufficed for someone considered the second-best batsman of his country among contemporaries, one who comprehended the away-run-making business abroad before (and better) than Kohli at one point. And now he was up against the wily Nathan Lyon, a swelling rough gaping at him, India treading a tricky phase (147/3). It’s perhaps the circumstances that revitalised his muscle memory, as the extra pressure tends to make one more agile.
There were also fewer methods to survive Lyon than being decisive with his footwork – even then the odd unplayable ball would arrive. Thrusting back and working away off the legs was difficult due to Lyon’s pace and the uneven bounce. Playing from the crease was inviting doom. The best, rather better, method was to jump out of the crease and blunt the ball before it would land in the rough, like Cheteshwar Pujara did. Rahane might not possess the silvery footwork of Pujara, but he can bend his technique to neuter the perils of Lyon and the pitch.
So straightaway he was looking to meet the ball before it landed in the rough, moving out diagonally from the crease so that he was always outside the line of the turning ball. And in case he missed it, he would be struck outside the line of off-stump, negating, to a large extent, the lbw danger. At the other end, Mitchell Starc did his best to cheer Rahane, feeding him a full delivery which he crunched through the covers and a short ball that he imperiously pulled. It got his sinews going, and he began to venture for runs than look to survive.
But Lyon was no cinch. He began to taunt him with the lengths – a fuller ball followed by a shorter one, quicker one after a slow, loopy off-break, the top-spinner complemented by a prodigious off-break, one of which eluded his glove by a whisker, a few others spat past his inside edge by millimetres. But Rahane survived Lyon, and when the latter returned with the new ball, he demonstrated how proficient a player of spin he was, pulling possibly the most difficult stroke against an off-spinner on a turning deck, the off-drive, where the footwork needs to be inch-perfect. Neither too close to the pitch of the ball not too far from it, neither in the air nor after pitching, but just when it’s pitched. Here, his footwork was twinkling and precise.
The other aspects of the batting automatically fell into place, the hands coming down nicely and the bat-swing crisp. Those were the three most glorious runs he’d collected in this innings. A few overs later, he sashayed down and freed his arms to clobber him over midwicket for another boundary. The confidence of dealing with Lyon, effectively than assuredly, on a treacherous track transpired to a more aggressive approach against the seamers and Rahane consigned Josh Hazlewood to a blinding pull to complete his half-century.
One could argue that he was not under extraordinary pressure, but in hindsight, after India’s implosion, leaving them 20-25 runs from the comfort zone as batting coach Sanjay Bangar admitted, the value of his knock only intensifies. Moreover, he was under immense personal scrutiny – it has been a year and a half since he has scored a century, a drought running 23 innings, his overseas supremacy has tailed off this year (average of 28.35 as opposed to 53.44 before that) and the indispensability is wrinkling out.
Maybe, a hundred would have torn the apprehensions apart. But the 70 – and the footwork – was a timely reminder that he’s closer to reaching the heights of 2014.