Among this generation of Indian batsmen, Virat Kohli towers above the rest like a cloud-piercing skyscraper. He’s piled more runs, hundreds and double hundreds than his colleagues — on the gloomiest of Pune evenings, he struck his seventh 200, in tune with the big-hundred theme of the series. Before Kohli, nascent opener Mayank Agarwal converted his maiden Test hundred to a double in Vizag, then added a fine century in Pune too. Rohit Sharma, in the opener-avatar for the first time in Tests, reeled out back-to-back hundreds.
In this backdrop, half-centuries fade like mid-risers obscured by high-risers. Only three other Indian batsmen have managed half-centuries in the series so far — Cheteshwar Pujara’s trenchant 81 and a fluent 58, Ravindra Jadeja’s thrilling 91 as India hurtled to the declaration in Pune, and Ajinkya Rahane’s typically fighting 59. These knocks might not linger in the mind for any longer than the completion of the match (if one is a cricket academic) or the day or a session. They might not have recall value like the hundreds, nor aesthetic value, given the more business-like approaches of Pujara and Rahane, or even standalone value in the retelling of the game. But these knocks, nonetheless, have contextual value, which gets blurred in the bigger picture.
Take for instance Pujara’s 58 — only Rohit Sharma scored fewer runs than him in India’s only innings in Pune. But weave in the circumstances, the 58 assume a larger significance. For, when Kagiso Rabada nailed Rohit Sharma, India were far from secure. It was just around the time the South African speedster threatened to be the irresistible force he’s touted to be. He was rectifying his lengths and extracting seam movement, just enough to confuse the batsmen.
At the other end, Agarwal was a trifle shaky, just about getting his bearings and settling into his rhythm. The opener was playing away from the body, his front foot was getting stuck, making him prone to lbws, and South Africa were sniffing an opportunity to make further dentures. By getting another wicket quickly, they could have exposed Kohli to relatively newish ball (10th over) when the surface was still offering assistance to the seamers. With the bounce available, even Keshav Maharaj could potentially have posed a threat.
This is where Pujara’s resoluteness kicked in. He had rediscovered his touch after the trenchant second-innings 81 in Vizag. Deprived as he has been of big knocks since the remarkable trip to Australia, he was craving for one. He calmly negotiated an over from Rabada — had Pujara succumbed, the bowler might have got another over or two — and a testy spell from Vernon Philander. The assurance enabled Agarwal to play his natural game, as he tore into the callow Anrich Nortje, after being stung on the helmet. He soon made way for Keshav Maharaj, who Pujara unsettled with his characteristic skip-down-the-track method. The left-arm spinner was straightaway dishevelled, and didn’t recover. When the recalled Rabada was tying Agarwal up, thus drying the runs up, Pujara found release from Maharaj, stroking him for a brace of fours.
Stonewallers like Pujara are like stock bowlers, the safety valve that lets the strike bowlers strive for wickets. Pujara’s stability enabled Agarwal to bat uninhibitedly, just as it was for Rohit en route to his second-innings hundred in Vizag. And as the innings progressed, Pujara too accelerated, as he does once he crosses 30. He’d looked smooth enough for a hundred — which he reaches more often than not after passing fifty, but a momentary lapse of concentration undid him. That Rabada gave him an elaborate send-off before spewing verbals demonstrated how irritating his knock was in the context of the match. When he departed, India had steamed off to 163, the ball had become ragged and soft, and Kohli could bed in for a big knock.
Pujara will never be as exciting a batsman to watch as Kohli, whose instinct is to attack where Pujara’s is to build a wall of safety inside which he can begin to express himself. But he has shown the same intelligence and consummate professionalism.
Rahane, accustomed to the cut and thrust of the domestic game by the time the national cap came his way, is a dissimilar batsman — he’s not a skilled shredder of spin bowling, can look at times lazy and clumsy and ironically, struggles in Indian conditions, has a better average abroad (46 as compared to 35 at home) but has the remarkable gift of shepherding lower-order batsmen and adapting to different circumstances.
In Vizag, he had to keep scoring briskly as India contemplated a declaration. In Pune, he had to accompany Kohli through a difficult period in the last session of the first day, as South Africa were bent on cutting out run-scoring outlets. He had to bide his time, ensure that he did nothing silly but support Kohli, who himself was looking to block than score.
Rahane was often rickety, hassled especially against Maharaj, but clung on tenaciously, even more so as India were a batsman short. But if he does not crush attacks, he can fillet them mighty effectively. It’s another offshoot of the stability and resourcefulness Pujara and Rahane could provide — Kohli can afford to pack in an extra bowler, a move that paid rich dividends as the Umesh Yadav made a massive difference.
At other times, Rahane was thrust to batting with the lower order, something only VVS Laxman fully mastered among modern-day Indian batsmen. It’s also a reason he hasn’t as many hundreds as Pujara or Kohli, but his knocks were influential in orchestrating two of India’s most memorable overseas triumphs last year — the 81 in Nottingham and 70 in Adelaide. Hence, they’re a throwback to the Dravid-Laxman axis.
Not yet reaching their level, Pujara resembles Dravid in terms of stickability and unbreakable spirit (though not his pristine classicism, that inscrutable front-foot defence) and Rahane to Laxman (though not his artistry or wrist-curls). Add Kohli to the mix and you could strike a Tendulkar-Dravid-Laxman parallel of a master, builder and a utilitarian.
If Rohit and Agarwal could forge a long-term association, they could be tank-sniper combination, but the three pillars of India’s contemporary batting sky-risers are Kohli, Pujara and Rahane. And even if Pujara-Rahane had missed out on big numbers, they made their value with significant contributions. Take out the 58 and 59, maybe the 108 and 254* wouldn’t have come into existence.