‘But the runs came in a dead rubber...’
It was a disappointing overseas tour for India. Despite hopes of a good showing before it all began, by the time the final Test arrived, the series was already decided. Even the final Test was not going their way. But up stepped India’s opening batsman to score a fluent century in a losing cause, that might not have meant a great deal in the context of the series. But it established that this man had it in him to deliver in the toughest conditions there were.
That was on January 4, 2000. The venue? Sydney Cricket Ground. The batsman? VVS Laxman. The importance? It established Laxman’s Test match credentials as he stroked his way to the first of many Test hundreds, and the first of many special innings against Australia.
In that context, anyone who dismisses the centuries of KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant on the final day of the final Test on India’s two-month long tour of England, is missing the point.
For Rahul, it was a successful end to a difficult tour that started ever so well in the T20Is. For all the talk about his talent, the Test series was turning into bit of a nightmare for the Karnataka batsman. In fact, his lack of runs in the longest format was becoming a concern. After a bright start to his career, where he converted four of his first five 50-plus scores into a century, Rahul was getting stuck before the three-figure mark constantly, even before this poor run of form. In this Test series, he wasn’t even getting to those fifties.
In the final chance presented to him, he not only got to his first fifty of the series — and the first half century for an Indian opener (which tells you a story) — he went on to make it a classy century. His fifth ton in Tests, the first in 20 months since his 199 against England in Chennai, the first time he converted in the last 11 occasions that he reached 50.
At the other end, Rishabh Pant stroked his way to his maiden Test century. Ask any international batsman worth his salt, they could speak to you for days about the importance of scoring that first Test hundred. Alastair Cook, for instance, spoke about it in the days leading up to his retirement. It helped him prove to his teammates that he belonged in that dressing room. The same would go for Pant too. At 20, he is now a Test centurion. Just when there were murmurs about his credentials as a Test cricketer, Pant shushed them.
‘But England were not really at their best, the series was already won...’
Tell that to James Anderson, who was so keen to get the wicket that would take him past Glenn McGrath, that when he actually did at the end of the innings and spoke about it after the game, he choked up... he wanted to do it in his best mate’s (Alastair Cook) last Test. Tell that to Stuart Broad, who was running in and bowling at 80-plus despite a rib injury and who was throwing himself to the ground at deep cover when he was not bowling. Even the rest of the bowling attack were not out on the field on Tuesday to make up for the numbers, get done with their quota of overs, collect their medals at the end of the day and go back home.
This was a team that was intent on making the scoreline 4-1 against the world No 1 Test side. Cook later spoke in the post-match presentation about how Anderson did not miss his length perhaps even once through the day, despite the way Rahul and Pant batted. While that was to credit Anderson as the best English cricketer he had played with, Cook’s remarks should also hold the Indian batsmen’s efforts in good light.
‘And good that they played their natural game...’
That’s not entirely true, though. To put down their centuries to merely the abstract concept of ‘playing their natural game’ would be doing disservice to the application they showed.
At one point in the second session, Rahul played six breathtakingly perfect defensive shots against Anderson in one over — he showed good footwork, his head was still, he was not falling over when the ball came back into him, he played with soft hands and a high elbow. Sunil Gavaskar, on air during that over, was gushing at the technique Rahul showed. That, after all, was the biggest takeaway from his innings. Remember, this was Rahul’s first tour of England. And he leaves it with the confidence that he has the defensive technique to succeed here. Ask Virat Kohli and he’ll tell you the value of that.
As for Pant, sure enough, he played his own brand of cricket. To become the first cricketer to open his account in Test cricket as well as get to his first century with a six, tells you all you need to know about his style of play. His one-handed six off Moeen Ali early in his innings was quite the sight too. But, even for him, this was not a case of wham-bham-thank you, ma’am. That was him during the second innings in Southampton, when he came out and just started attacking without a second thought. The difference between that knock and this ton at The Oval was that while the former was blind aggression, he was ready to defend a lot more here. It was watchful aggression, and he picked his areas. Those are signs of a quick learner.
The importance going forward...
Yes, the centuries came when the series was already decided in favour of England. Yes, they came on perhaps the best surface for batting in this series. But the importance of spending time in the middle, against a quality bowling attack, when the ball was still seaming and turning off the pitch, when the team was in desperate trouble... these are things that cannot be discounted. More than anything, it gives two young men the confidence that they can deliver in overseas conditions.
After all, without those 167 runs in Sydney (which, back then, was still enough for Laxman to cement his place in the side long term), the world might not have known Laxman’s ability to deliver when the backs were against the wall for the rest of his teammates. One can only hope Rahul and Pant’s centuries in this dead rubber, spur them on the same way.