For a batsman of his talent, technique and temperament, Ajinkya Rahane’s batting record in Test matches at home was abysmal. Before the ongoing fourth India-South Africa match at the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium, Rahane had played four home Tests and scored a total of 47 runs at a batting average of — it’s not a typo — 7.83 and a highest total of 15. After the Nagpur Test, India’s No.5 actually had worse numbers on home soil than their No.11.
There is a reason behind this aberration. From his forgettable debut against Australia in Delhi in March 2013 to last month, Rahane had played Test cricket on the road only. In those 17 matches, he scored four hundreds and seven fifties and established himself as one of this generation’s best batsmen in all conditions. It was in this series against South Africa that he was supposed to correct that minor anomaly at home.
But what followed were scores of 15 and 2 in Mohali, and 12 and nine in Nagpur. He outside-edged part-timer Dean Elgar, inside-edged off-spinner Simon Harmer, lost his stumps to Morne Morkel and lobbed an Imran Tahir leg-spinner to short third man.
“What had been happening in the past few matches was that he was slightly hurrying through his shots early on in his innings,” explained batting coach Sanjay Bangar. He withheld another big reason for Rahane’s poor form in this series — those atrocious pitches. But then Bangar has been defending those pitches, hasn’t he?
It’s a bit more than coincidence that on a better wicket at the Feroz Shah Kotla, Rahane finally set the record straight, closing in on a century while digging India out of a hole.
A better pitch
Given what had transpired in Nagpur, all the focus was on the Kotla pitch ahead of the match. It proved to be the best strip of the series, relatively speaking. Let’s just say that unlike Nagpur which seemed and acted up like a seventh-day pitch on Day One, this one looked and behaved like a typical Kotla track on the third morning of a Test match.
Yet, it took a combination of Rahane’s brilliance, some ordinary umpiring and fairly pedestrian South African slip-catching to prevent Thursday from panning out differently from the opening days of the previous matches.
Rahane returned unbeaten on 89 — the highest individual score in the series — having been dropped by Hashim Amla, while Ravichandran Ashwin (6) was the other not out batsman, having been let off by umpire Kumar Dharmasena on 2, as India finished the day at 231 for seven — the highest team total this series.
The hosts were also helped by the fact that South Africa were one reliable bowler short. Off-spinner Dane Piedt, who came in for Harmer, bowled impressively for his four wickets — and could’ve taken another two — while paceman Kyle Abbott, who replaced Kagiso Rabada, was unrelenting in the corridor and struck thrice. Morne Morkel generated disconcerting bounce on a two-paced wicket, but it was Imran Tahir’s leg-spin rubbish that eased the pressure, as Amla looked to rest his frontline bowlers.
India, when they lost wickets, lost them mostly in bunches as the batsmen, after the scars of Nagpur and Mohali, looked less sure of their technique. Openers Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan were foxed playing for the turn, as did Rohit Sharma, who employed an ill-advised slog-sweep, but the ball didn’t spin enough for his liking. Cheteshwar Pujara and Wriddhiman Saha saw the ball crashing through the gate between bat and pad. India first slipped from 62/1 to 66/3 and then from 136/3 to 139/6.
Between those twin collapses, Rahane and Virat Kohli flourished. They exercised early caution and found that scoring was easier that it had seemed. Kohli, in fact, was teased by Abbott outside off but he refused the bait early on. Later, when he grew comfortable, he sent those balls to the boundary. The duo added 70 runs for the fourth wicket in 17 overs when a freak dismissal broke the partnership. Having driven Piedt for a four, Kohli went down on the right knee and stretched the front leg forward in order to sweep the off-spinner. He connected it well too, but it popped up in the air after hitting Temba Bavuma at short-leg. Wicket-keeper Dane Vilas pounced on it and took a diving catch.
Caution, aggresion, caution
As South Africa doubled pressure and wickets fell at the other end, Rahane, who had breezed to a fluent 30 with his captain, shut shop to let the storm blow over. With a willing Ravindra Jadeja, he went about reconstructing the innings. Later, when the South African bowlers were tiring, he came out of his shell, sweeping Piedt over midwicket for a six and then pulling the young offie for a four to bring up his half-century.
“Rahane has reworked his strategy a bit,” Bangar would later explain. ”He is willing to spend a lot of time in the middle in the initial stages and wait for the loose balls. This may sound like a cliche, but that’s the key to batsmanship in the longer format of the game. You need to give some time to the bowler to get use to the pace of the wicket. And it was a classic example of how you could do it. I think all credit to Ajinkya for the way he has turned up for this Test match after the low scores in the first two games. It speaks a lot about his character.”
Rahane added 59 runs with Jadeja for the seventh wicket and another unbeaten 33 with Ravichandran Ashwin. There was a heart-in-the-mouth moment in the last half an hour when the Mumbaikar edged Piedt, operating from around the wicket, to Amla at slips, but the South Africa captain grassed his second of the day.
It was the only lapse in Rahane’s concentration the entire day. He would add 11 more to his tally to be 11 short of a memorable century on home soil — one that has taken a long time coming.