“Wasn’t he trying to do a Slats, yeah Slats?,” howled Tom Moody in the ABC commentary box. Michael Slater, his fellow commentator, couldn’t stop chuckling, and replied: “I wouldn’t have been up over here, you can ask Jason (Gillespie)”. The latter retorted: “I would’ve broken your (nose) bridge, Slats.” “No mate, you can’t sledge me here,” Slater said, laughing.
They were bantering over a counterfeit imitation of Slater’s trampoline-slash over point, which Rahul had just attempted and managed but a chunky edge over the slips. Slater was all bulging forearms when he played those shots, recoiling and then expanding his shoulder before tenderising the ball. Rahul was wishfully chancing his bat.
Even the bowler, Pat Cummins, saw the funnier side of it, and wiggled his fingers at him, as if suggesting the change of gloves hadn’t altered his luck with the stroke. The ball before, Rahul had completely missed a similar slash and changed his gloves immediately. Rahul reciprocated with a smile, thus releasing the brimming nervous intensity of the session. He had just begun a bizarre counter-attack, one that seemed ridiculously silly at first glance but justifiably redemptive in the deeper context of the match.
For until that point, the Adelaide Oval was still. India were crawling at run-an-over, off which four were sundries. Rahul himself was stuck — one off 25 balls. Then, untelegraphed, madness kicked in. He cracked a four that thundered down the Chappell Stand, transforming the arena into a theatre of bounding energy. It was not purely controlled. It didn’t matter.
It wasn’t a full enough delivery for the drive. Rahul just flung himself at it, from the crease, neither covering the line nor riding the bounce, merely throwing his hands at it. Like the release shot in an ODI powerplay. But his hand-eye coordination and the bat-swing were so good that it flew (rather blew) over mid-off. Starting this ball, he would collect 43 off 42. And for the next hour or so, watching him was an emotional roulette, the gasps, wows, and sighs.
All that emotional churn for 44 runs, rather the 43 off those runs, one might ask. Indeed those weren’t the most thrilling 42 runs you’d ever watch in Test cricket, but those would count among the most fitful 42 runs you’d ever see, and it was utterly against the run of play. There were classical cover drives, hideous slashes, monstrous heaves, reverse sweeps, enervating audacity and outright madness. Something for every viewer of the game, from the connoisseurs and psychoanalysts to tragics and cynics.
Rahul was serious about what he was doing. The misses and edges weren’t to deter him. The first delivery of the 15th over was carved over point — a stroke as breathtaking as it was irrational. “Whoa,” the crowd erupted. Would anyone dare to play such a stroke on strip with spongy, at times uneven, bounce with the match on the edge? Then came up another classical drive, leaning in to reach the pitch of the ball and guiding it with soft hands, high elbow winking at the sun.
But this was the best way Rahul, or the team, could have defied the momentum that was building up against them, and it could only get worse as Nathan Lyon was stretching his sinews. The tarry rough outside the off-stump, there and thereabouts a spinner’s good-length area, was gaping at them. They could do nothing if one spat and took their glove, or the other scudded to their pads. So the only outlet was to attack, and Rahul primarily is an attacking batsman, with both classical and radical range of strokes in his canvas.
When the Tests dynamics weren’t working, he borrowed from T20 or ODIs. Just like you sometimes appreciate classical batting in Tests, you should admire a bit of T20-infusion in Tests, too. After all, there’s no harm in trying, and of all the bowlers, Cummins was the easiest to unsettle. Not that he lacks pace or craft, but he’s not an immaculate, unflagging length-line peddler like Hazlewood, nor does he possess the devious variations of Starc, whose natural left-armer’s angle means that the batsman has go across the line. At times, Rahul tried one stroke too many, but you can’t fault him for intentions. Before Lyon could work his magic, they needed some runs.
Together with the more conservative Murali Vijay, he forged the pair’s first-ever half-century alliance outside Asia, the 63-run partnership laying the foundation of an unassailable total. Importantly, it shielded Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli from the new Kookaburra ball.
Rahul’s high-risk approach inevitably led to his end. The scope for a booming drive lit up his eyes, but Hazlewood’s subtle off-the-seam deviation consumed him. He walked back shaking his head. Maybe, he could have reined in the rush of adrenalin. But as India ended the day with a lead of 166 and seven wickets in hand, it seemed Rahul’s means might yet justify the end.