“When we saw the wicket a couple of days ago, we did expect the wicket to be the same as last time, but today we turned up and the wicket was different,” said KL Rahul after stumps on day one of the second Test at the SSC.
Remember 2015? A lush green-top here at this ground had set nerves jingling ahead of what was going to be the deciding Test of a thrilling series. It gave the hosts a chance to topple this Indian team. Alternatively, this time around in 2017, there is certain admission that Lanka cannot beat the no.1 ranked Test side, come what may. Perhaps this is why the hosts’ best ploy so far has been to make heavily rolled batting beauties in Galle and again here in Colombo.
The one difference between these first two Tests is that the SSC pitch assuredly looks drier, with ample sign already of breaking up. And yet, there is good reason why the Indian team management simply shrugged off this differentiation. There was no change in the playing eleven, barring Rahul expectedly coming in place of Abhinav Mukund. India went in with five bowlers, including two world-class spinners and a budding seam-bowling all-rounder. More importantly, they went in with five frontline batsmen, as is their wont.
That number – five – is key. It signifies the confidence within this Indian team that five full-time batsmen are enough to do the job. It is about responsibility of scoring tall and putting big runs on the board to provide a cushion for your bowling attack. It is the requisite for a five-pronged bowling attack, and when this decision was made long ago, parameters like conditions and opponents were thrown out of the window.
Yes, irrespective of what is on offer, India depend on their five batsmen to make it count. It puts added onus on them, sure, assigning additional weightage to each of their knocks. Ajinkya Rahane’s 9th Test hundred is another example of the batsmen understanding their responsibilites.
“This pitch is expected to take turn from day three, possibly day two,” said Lankan skipper Dinesh Chandimal ahead of the game. On day one though, it was a batting beauty. It could be seen in how India sped off the blocks. It could be seen in the ease with which Rahul scored his sixth consecutive Test half-centuy. It could be seen in the serenity with which Cheteshwar Pujara continued batting in third-gear, and racked up another hundred in his 50th Test.
Flat pitch, yes. Easy runs, true. Insipid bowling attack, partly, but Lanka tried hard on this first day. And true value of their sweat and toil on could be seen when India went from 101/1 at lunch to 133/3 within 11 overs after resumption of play.
That is when most teams would begin to question not playing an additional batsman. Not this Indian team, not its captain, not its coach.
That’s the measure of belief Rahane brings to the batting crease. You can recount all of his hundreds scored in every part of the world, and each of those runs is a mere brick in this wall of faith that encircles him. This hundred was different, though, if only because it had a small measure of personal doubt.
63 runs in 3 Tests against England. 198 runs in 4 Tests against Australia. They weren’t the quintessential Rahane series in terms of output. This is a batsman who has always left a mark. But he is human and such downfalls are part of the written script. None of it mattered when he stepped onto the field today, for, in that moment, it was only about opportunity.
He had missed out in Galle, thanks to the brilliance of others. But here was his chance. For once, India were struggling. This passage of play was about how Sri Lanka made their plan of three spinners work. In this short time period, for the first time in this series, India had to earn those runs. In a way, it was the perfect setting for two batsmen in this line-up who’s style you can classify under ‘workman-like’.
While Pujara did his grinding-the-attack-down thing as usual, Rahane played second fiddle. There is certain aggression to his game that does eventually bubble to the surface; only this wasn’t a setting to go headlong into the opposition bowling. Consider his shot against Dilruwan Perera, when he clubbed the off-spinner to mid-on, coming down the track. An over later, he pulled Malinda Pushpakumara to mid-wicket for another boundary.
Rahane plays coy, yet when the ball is there to be hit, he does smack it.
It was an odd thing, for he didn’t let the strike-rate go down at any point, in keeping with how well the pitch was playing. Alternately, he countered the Lankan bowling so well, there was certain momentum shift back in India’s favour. Split his hundred in two parts – the first 50 came off 83 balls, the second 50 came off only 68 balls – and it signifies how India pushed back Lanka, regaining that upper hand.
It was the perfect clutch-controlled innings from Rahane – keeping constant pace, yet never letting the opposition know if you are slowing down for a dangerous bend in the road, or more importantly, catching them unaware with instant acceleration.