First, kudos to Feroz Shah Kotla curator Ankit Datta for preparing a proper cricket pitch. The odd ball reared off a length, yes. It also has tennis-ball bounce. But unlike Mohali or Nagpur, this surface didn’t force the batters to hang on for dear lives. Fast bowler Kyle Abbott and offie Dane Piedt, the two entrants to the South African playing XI, bowled very well to share seven wickets that fell on the first day. But Ajinkya Rahane stole a march on them with a top-class innings.
Rahane, along with Murali Vijay, is India’s most consistent batsman in the longer format over the past one year and a half. The latter, however, looked a little out of sorts today. He was out to a no-ball from Abbott, got hit on the elbow by the same bowler and eventually perished to the rookie off-spinner. It was one of those days when things didn’t go right for Vijay. Or maybe, as Sunil Gavaskar pointed out, the Chennai rains played a role. Vijay hails from that part of the world and when your hometown is facing such a calamity, cricket becomes incidental. Credit to the Indian opener that he tried his best.
Rohit Sharma lacked his team-mate’s fighting spirit and threw his wicket away. He had a reprieve on nought, when Hashim Amla dropped a sitter off Abbott at slip. Two balls later, the Mumbai batter was out, holing out to Imran Tahir at long-on off Piedt. It was an atrocious shot that would once again put his Test temperament under the scanner. His dismissal had left the team on the edge at 138/5. India, however, had Rahane.
Rahane didn’t have a successful series in the lead-up to this game. Scores of 15, 2, 13 and 9 in Mohali and Nagpur attest his struggle. Today, he looked a little unsure to start with. He was reaching out to the deliveries that could have been avoided. Virat Kohli played like a true captain during that phase.
Kohli, too, hasn’t been his usual self in this series. But under pressure on his home patch, he batted like a leader. Abbott was getting a grip on the proceedings, probing in the ‘McGrath corridor’. Kohli slapped him past point to show his intent. Morne Morkel came with a serious threat of reverse swing, but the India captain hit him for a couple of fours in one over before whipping young Piedt past square leg for another boundary. It was excellent batting which helped his partner grow in confidence.
A freak dismissal ended his stay at the crease. A full-blooded sweep off Piedt hit Temba Bavuma at short-leg and the ball looped up for ‘keeper Dane Vilas to complete a diving catch. Unfortunate. Then, as Rohit and Wriddhiman Saha left in quick succession, onus fell on Rahane.
The best thing about his game is that he can adjust to situations. He played second fiddle to Kohli during a 70-run partnership for the fourth wicket. Ravindra Jadeja’s arrival signaled a role change. Rahane did it with ease. Batting with the lower-order and tail requires special quality. VVS Laxman had that. Rahane has it.
His 89 not out has nine fours and two sixes, but it was a leave that stood out. Dean Elgar had teased him with flight and Rahane almost committed himself to a forward push. But he changed his mind and withdrew the bat at the last moment, watching the ball all the way to the ‘keeper. Terrific!