It was India’s famed batting line-up that came under the scanner after the team crashed to an innings defeat at Lord’s a week ago.
Skipper Virat Kohli waged a lone battle as India came within touching distance of a win in Edgbaston, while a collective failure saw the No 1 ranked Test team succumb to a meek collapse. More than the defeat, the one fact that stood out was that India failed to reach even 150 in either innings.
Heads were expected to roll going into Trent Bridge, historically an English fortress. And it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane’s names on the chopping block. Both the senior batsmen, now Test specialists, were woefully out of touch.
Rahane’s struggles ran deeper. The Mumbai batsman had not registered a three-figure score in eight Tests and looked all at sea against the inswinger. Not long ago, he was one of India’s batting mainstays against the red ball. Until recently, he was his side’s most reliable overseas performer.
Having lost three quick wickets before lunch on the first day, Rahane’s contribution, in the context of the game, was crucial. India desperately needed a partnership – something that they had failed to build in four innings – to grab a foothold in the contest.
The post-lunch session offered a chance for Rahane to start afresh, an opportunity he didn’t miss. Milking out runs at the slightest given opportunity, even outscoring Kohli in the process, the India No 5 had finally turned a corner. After getting his eye in early, Rahane’s fluency had finally returned, and with it, the self-belief to combat alien conditions.
This was, after all, a batsman who stood tall on a raging green-top at Lord’s four summers ago to score a century. Here, Rahane took a leaf out of Kohli’s book. The emphasis was on blunting out senior pacers Stuart Broad and James Anderson; only 26 runs came off the 56 balls that he faced against them.
He was severe against Chris Woakes, though, winning the duel comfortably. The England all-rounder at the time was on a high, picking up each of the three wickets in the first session of day one.
Importantly, Rahane worked hard to not get squared up and there were no shots that were played with an angled bat. Nearly 70 percent of his runs came on the off-side, which was predictable taking into account the line that the English pacers were operating. For Rahane, the biggest takeaway of those 81 crucial runs was hand-picking run-scoring targets against the England attack.
Joe Root, however, might have missed a trick. Ben Stokes had just 13 deliveries to bowl at against his Indian Premier League teammate, who looked all at sea against the ones that offered late reverse-swing.
The 159-run fourth wicket stand between Kohli and Rahane altered the course of the match and the former was full of praise for his deputy: “Very crucial how Rahane played, having lost Puji [Pujara] just before lunch. He’s very positive, we love that about him. He can change the whole complexion of the game, and that’s what he did.”
Batting England out
The foundation set by Rahane may have rubbed off on Pujara too. There was much talk about the Saurashtra batsman’s below-average record outside the subcontinent.
Over the past month, it has been Pujara’s forgettable run in the County season that saw his place in his side on tenterhooks yet again. Those fears came true in the first Test with Pujara missing out.
Under the Kohli regime, there has been a demand for Pujara to keep the scoreboard ticking at a brisk pace. After a horrendous mix-up at mid-pitch in the last Test with his skipper, Pujara inexplicably hooked a ball straight to the hands of Adil Rashid at fine-leg in the last ball of the first session.
Unlike Rahane in the first innings, the 30-year-old had the match situation and conditions working to his advantage in the second essay. When Pujara came to the crease, India had a lead that almost touched the 250-run mark and it was still only day two in the match.
With the hosts getting their lengths wrong for the first time in the series, Pujara cashed in, getting off to a rapid start before leaving and blocking to glory on the third day. Luck also favoured him: when on 46, Jos Buttler dropped a regulation take at slips.
Tinkering with the playing XI is nothing new under Kohli as it has happened 38 consecutive times. Rahane and Pujara, from being reliable pillars in the batting order around whom Kohli could forge partnerships and stitch big scores, have become casualties in the recent past. Evidence of that could be seen during the South Africa tour earlier in the year and in the aforementioned Edgbaston Test, where Pujara was merely warming the bench.
“You need grit to score against them [England], and that’s what Jinx [Rahane] in the first innings and Puji [Pujara] in the second showed,” Kohli added, underling the significance the duo’s knocks.
Between Shikhar Dhawan’s belligerence, Kohli’s midas touch and Hardik Pandya’s robust hitting, Rahane and Pujara’s importance in the Test side may have been lost over the past 12 months. The emergence of KL Rahul, especially in white-ball cricket, may have further diluted the importance of the Rahane-Pujara axis.
Their respective knocks at the intimidating cauldron of Trent Bridge – far from a batting paradise – may have just reinforced the resourcefulness of Pujara and Rahane.