Half an hour into the first session of the practice game, Virat Kohli lugged his kitbag and walked across the ground into the nets behind the stadium, a characteristic palm-fringed, canopied enclosure overlooking the manicured garden of the Antigua Athletics Club. The skipper, who has abstained from the match, spotted a warm smile, as he watched Mayank Agarwal and KL Rahul set about their knocks meticulously. When he returned through the same path, nearly an hour of throw-downs later, he was glum-faced, as India had lost both their openers in succession.
And before he settled down at the patio of the dressing, the face turned gloomier, as he just saw Ajinkya Rahane perish to hideous dab outside the off-stump.
His mode of dismissal summed up the dismal opening session for the Indian batsmen against a crew of bowlers who were disciplined more than destructive, probing than preying. Right from the start, he looked as fidgety as a man who hasn’t clocked much international hours or runs in the game this year, whose last hundred came nearly two years ago, in a dead-rubber against a dispirited Sri Lanka in Kandy, who hasn’t had the best of times in the shorter versions either. He did have a reasonably profitable county stint with Hampshire, rattling out a hundred against the Notts, and here was an opportunity wherein he could grit and graft it out, as the Rahane of the past — when he would hang in by the skin of his teeth, and reacquaint with the deserted confidence.
But the Rahane on evidence was flighty, unsure. A touch tenuous even. After missing out on a couple of leg-side slanting full-balls, which he could have creamed effortlessly, he played a nothing shot, a marriage between a late cut and a typical limited-overs dab through third man.
His feet were crease-trenched, just his arms swishing aimlessly at nothing more than a routine dibbly-dobbly delivery of Jonathan Carter. All it resulted in was a faint nick to the keeper. With better discretion, he could have dealt with it differently. He could have left it, Carter is not someone gifted with Anderson-like swing or Bumrah-like back-bender.
He could have even cut it, he had could unfurled the conventional cut—he had ample time and it was one of his strokes that first served notice of his talent. But this time, he was confused, cluttered, unsure and caught in two minds, as is often the case when you’re not in the best frame of mind.
If Rahane’s scalp stemmed from uncertainty, Rahul’s bore from smugness. He like Rahane needed those runs that could have emboldened him before the first Test. His was batting serenely, timing the ball as crisply as he was during the tour of 2016, when he seemed he couldn’t err at this level. Much though has changed since, too many vulnerabilities have crept into his game against the new ball.
Good bowlers could set him up with the in-swinger as well as the out-swinger. He could be nailed in front as much as he could be nicked off. At other times, he has contrived to chop the ball back into the stumps, misjudging the bounce as well as the line.
These vulnerabilities shouldn’t trouble him in the West Indies, as the once fast and unpredictable surfaces have long made way for anodyne batting beauties. And neither of their opening bowlers Marquino Mindley or Romario Shepherd swung or seamed. They weren’t the rapidest either.
Rahul could just pick them through the line — he began cautiously before he expanded. All that could distract him seemed to be the screeching airplanes taking off from the VC Bird International Airport in the vicinity. Crunched drives, forced back-foot strokes, streaming flicks, Rahul seemed to boss around until he found a new method to get out, by playing the hook.
He was forewarned early in the innings, when a hook had narrowly evaded the deep-fine leg fielder.
A well-timed but poorly-placed stroke. But the second time around, he genuinely miscued the stroke, Keon Harding’s effort ball hastening him to imprudence.
Or maybe, it was a lapse in concentration. Or maybe, he took the bowler lightly. Like his long-time friend and opening partner Mayank Agarwal, who after looking resolutely stable ventured for an extravagant straight-drive, to be beaten by the length.
It was a touch fuller than he had expected and was beaten for pace to be bowled off the first ball of Carter, who let out so loud a shriek that it seemed to stop the traffic beside the Airport Road.
Finally, it took a firm partnership between Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara to bring the smile back on the Indian skipper’s face. A half-smile rather.
Brief scores: India 206/4 in 60 ovs (KL Rahul 36, M Agarwal 12, A Rahane 1, Cheteshwar Pujara 82 batting, R Sharma 68 batting) vs West Indies A