As the pundits were dissecting the wicket of Cameron Green, who played an expansive drive away from his body, Harsha Bhogle raised a valid question in the commentary box. Sympathizing with the departee, he asked how challenging it must be to make the drastic mental and technical switch to Test cricket after two months of swinging for the fences in the Indian Premier League.
Dealing with the red ball entails caution, which is thrown to the wind in the slam-bang format. Yet here was Ajinkya Rahane, moving between the opposite ends of the spectrum as smoothly as an amphibian. As he played the ball late, right under his nose, with soft hands, you couldn’t help but wonder if he was the same batter picking up length to cream aesthetic sixes a fortnight ago.
The degree of difficulty in making that transition can be understood by Virat Kohli’s reluctance to add reverse sweeps and ramps to his repertoire. He likes to ‘stay true to his technique’ while playing T20s so that bridging the gap is easier when he arrives at the training camp for the World Test Championship final. Rahane follows suit. His power game is structured around fundamentals – base, balance, bat speed – and textbook shots rather than fancy scoops, so there was no need to tinker too much with the nuts and bolts of his batting in the lead-up to the summit clash. But technique is just part of the story, mental adjustments hold the key to a successful migration.
When you’re accustomed to chasing the ball for an extended period of time, abstinence becomes a tough ask. Swashbucklers do not offer judgement, but survival would be nigh impossible without doing so in the face of a world-class attack. It was the conquest of the mind that Rahane deserves plaudits for. He was able to get out of the psyche of an enforcer and attune himself to the rigours of Test cricket in short order, much to India’s applause on a do-or-die day.
The contrasts in the first hour of play couldn’t have been starker. While KS Bharat heard the death rattle first thing in the morning and Shardul Thakur endured a punishing vigil, Rahane was an oasis of calm, ticking off all the checkboxes for negotiating swing and seam. His average interception point being 1.49m from the stumps as compared to 2.04m, the mean for the rest of the Indian batters, was a glowing testimonial of his ability to play late. Often, he made contact with an open face to meet the deliveries jagging away in their path, a subtle maneuver which reduces the risk of edging an outswinger besides opening up a much-loved scoring avenue past gully.
Australia directing their energies towards the ill-at-ease Shardul helped Rahane’s cause. The field was spread out early in the over to get him off strike and thereby bring his partner in the firing line. Singles and doubles were hence readily available and the scoreboard kept chugging along as Rahane accumulated runs, one nudge at a time. The dovetailing of extra bounce and prodigious seam movement called for vigilance, and Rahane sincerely obliged, but he was on a simultaneous lookout for looseners. For, capitalizing on anything fractionally poor is imperative in England, where pitch and weather conditions seldom befriend a batter.
The metronome that is Scott Boland isn’t prone to overpitching, but Rahane nailed the cover drive when an anomaly presented itself. When Pat Cummins got the radar wrong on a bumper, he used the pace to rush to his 26th Test half-century. Cameron Green copped a couple of boundaries, with the former revealing a method to what an untrained eye ought to deem Rahane’s madness. There was width on offer and reaching out to drive with a straight bat was bound to leave a yawning gap between his willow and feet, so Rahane hedged his bets by flashing hard diagonally. The rationale behind the adventure was that if he managed to connect with a hard horizontal swing, well and good. If not, the ball would elude the cordon thanks to the purposive flourish.
The edge did fly over the slips in Rahane’s case, but Shardul didn’t miscue when it was eventually his turn to throw the kitchen sink. A gunshot crack reverberated across the Oval as Thakur climbed into Mitchell Starc’s half-volley. He could’ve fallen on 36 at the stroke of Lunch if Pat Cummins hadn’t overstepped, the second of his three indiscretions in the innings. The no-balls were his own doing, but the Australian skipper saw two catches go down off his bowling as well. As luck would have it, redemption arcs transpired for both Cummins and Green, who duly compensated for the drop by making the most of his wingspan as Rahane nicked off 11 shy of a hundred on return.
The dissatisfaction of a job half done writ large on his face, Rahane trudged off the park having alleviated India’s deficit to 208, as unassumingly as he reverted to the domestic grind after the national selectors ran out of patience with him and Cheteshwar Pujara in the aftermath of the tour to South Africa in late 2021. He put his head down, racked up the numbers and earned his stripes back. Ajinkya Rahane’s contribution in the grand finale is worth more than a century, not only salvaging personal pride but also India’s title hopes.