Pat Cummins has been lethal ever since he was slipped into the India-Australia series for the third Test in Ranchi. His line has been suffocating, his pace has been disturbing and his bouncers have been dangerous.
Cummins is in the same beast mode as Australia attempted a heist on day four of the decider in Dharamsala. They had a paltry 105 to defend, but it is on a surface that promised to aid if the bowlers tried. The fiery Australian pacer more than tried.
The run-up is marked from round the wicket. The field – a deep square-leg and a deep fine-leg – forewarns Ajinkya Rahane of what awaits him. It is going to be short, fast and directed at his body. He can either sway awkwardly and avoid the barrage of bouncers or fight fire with fire and take on the short-pitched deliveries. If he opts for the former, the pressure can mount in the tricky chase India is embroiled in; if he goes with the latter, he risks losing his wicket and dragging India into quick sand.
Tick, tock, tick – Rahane does not have much time to decide, though. Cummins has commenced his approach, and the delivery will cross him before he can blink. But, he decides. Smack! The Indian captain for the game dispatches the cherry into the stand over mid-wicket.
But Cummins is not done yet. Australia is not done yet. Steve Smith, now, has a deep mid-wicket in place too, to go along with the deep fine-leg and deep square-leg. The bouncer barrage is set to continue. The risk of another similar shot has multiplied. Rahane, however, is a step ahead. He clears his front foot and sends the next bouncer over cover for a flat six. He has made room where there was meant to be no room. His aggression with the bat all but seals the game, and the series, for the hosts. His assault has reaffirmed India’s supremacy at home, and his own ability to be India’s all-weather batsman.
When Rahane walked in to bat, India were 60 away from regaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Australia had sent Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara back to the hut within a matter of five deliveries. The tourists sniffed a turn in the tale. They were noisier. This was their last shot.
A straight drive and a hook of his second and third deliveries off Cummins got Rahane rolling. By the time the Mumbai batsman had decimated Cummins and Australia with the consecutive sixes, India were only 23 adrift and on the cusp of another series triumph. Rahul had been steady in his unbeaten knock of 51, but it was Rahane’s 38 off 27 balls that blew Australia out of Dharamsala.
“The way Jinks [Rahane] came out and started hitting Cummins for sixes... He just came out and said I am going to dominate,” Rahul said of his partner’s ploy after India had completed the eight-wicket victory.
Not afraid to take on bouncers
With this knock, Rahane had reminded the world of his ability to counter his team out of trouble. He had done it previously when Virat Kohli was under attack from Mitchell Johnson at the MCG in 2014. On a fast track, the former Australian pace great had unleashed a gunfire of bouncers. Then too, Rahane hooked and pulled Johnson. He disturbed Australia’s rhythm and allowed Kohli to settle down.
On Tuesday, Rahane once again attacked the short stuff from Australia to deflate the momentum they had gathered post the quick couple of wickets in the morning.
Rahane’s effort was even more praiseworthy because he had struggled with well-directed short-pitched bowling recently. Against New Zealand in October, he had taken blows to his body because he was not comfortable playing the pull and hook on his way to a crucial 188 in Indore. Even as recently as Ranchi, Rahane had attempted an awkward upper-cut off Cummins, only to edge it to Mathew Wade.
But the knock on Tuesday was testimony to the fact that when push comes to shove, Rahane comes to the fore. He can lambast the bouncers, which he may not always be a master of, like he did in Dharamsala or dig in and bat for hours on a tricky wicket like in Bangalore.
On a surface that turned square, and offered uneven bounce, Rahane hung in there for 134 balls in the second innings of the Bengaluru Test. He scored 52 and notched up a 118-run partnership with Cheteshwar Pujara to help India come back from behind. India had lost the first Test, conceded a first-innings lead and lost four wickets for just 120 when Rahane had walked in. But his time out in the middle with Pujara ensured India could level the series, before, eventually, winning it in the fourth Test.
At the start of the series, Rahane’s lack of form had made him the most vulnerable of the Indian batsmen. Karun Nair, who had scored a triple century in his last Test outing, was competing for Rahane’s spot. The pressure was immense. Weaker men would have cracked under such pressure in Bangalore. But not Rahane. Instead, his steel took India to victory when few expected him to. He has, after all, turned into India’s man for the crisis.
India could have lost the series in Bengaluru but an out-of-form, demoted Rahane came to the rescue. There could have been a hiccup in Dharamsala, but a determined Rahane ended India’s home season on a glorious note. In the process, he enjoyed a winning start to his Test captaincy tenure. Unlike Kohli’s captaincy, the aggression was restricted mainly to the exploits on the field. But like Kohli’s captaincy, Rahane the leader has proved to be a success too.