The big question mark for this India team coming into any series is how they deal with the loss of the top three batsmen. Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have been so good over the past two years that rarely, if ever, has the middle order had the opportunity to come to the team’s rescue. And when they have had the opportunity, they looked shaky at best.

The collapse at Hamilton was a humiliation [as Rohit Sharma put it] that the visitors wanted to put behind them quickly. But they also knew that only by facing such challenges would they get better.

So when India won the toss, Rohit elected to bat first on a wicket that had a fair tinge of grass and was expected to do something at least for the first 6-7 overs. In a must-win game, as Sharma revealed after the match, they would have preferred to chase.

But this was India seeking to challenge itself. And for a while, it looked like they got more than they bargained for. Dhawan, Sharma, Shubman Gill and MS Dhoni were all back in the hut with just 18 runs on board.

That’s when Ambati Rayudu as joined in the middle by Vijay Shankar. The move was surprising to many as they still had Kedar Kadhav and Hardik Pandya, both experienced internationals, in the dressing room.

But Shankar, who averages 47.70 in first class cricket, showed just why he was sent up the order by showcasing a very compact technique. The need of the hour was to stop the slide and both batsmen did that in their own way.

Off the first 20 balls he faced, Rayudu made one run. His mind was clearly set on just staying in the middle and absorbing the pressure. Shankar, on the other hand, seemed to be the more fluent of the two batsmen... stroking the ball into the gaps with the ease one associates with accomplished batsmen.

Things got admittedly easier once Matt Henry and Trent Boult were taken out of the attack but the batsmen continued to play with a fair degree of caution. Another wicket at that point might have set the cat among the pigeons. But the hurt which carried over from Hamilton ensured that the batsmen chose the more conservative approach.

“It was very tough against a quality bowling attack, said Rayudu after the match ended.” “[I] was thinking we should take the game to the 30th over without losing another wicket. Our only plan was to play the full fifty overs. Especially for people batting at four, five and six, you get opportunities only when the situation is tough.”

But often, it comes down to what you do with those opportunities. Too often in the past have we seen Rayudu throw it away in tough situations. To inspire confidence in his ability to handle the rough as well as he does the smooth, India needed their no 4 to shine, and he did just that.

He kept the bigger picture in mind, knowing that if they could get a stand going then their bowlers would certainly give them a fighting chance. The one-run off 20 balls became 7 runs off 35 balls. Rayudu was not in a rush.

It helped that at the other end, Shankar had scored 20 off 36. These runs ensured that Rayudu didn’t do anything foolish at that stage. But one could see him visibly start to get a little angsty. He was looking for a release shot and living dangerously.

And it didn’t come with the 23rd over when he slammed the fifth and sixth deliveries for a four and a six. Still, he just seemed to be giving the bowlers a look-in.

Meanwhile, Shankar was looking very comfortable... rotating the strike well too but just as he was looking to change gears, he was dismissed after a horrible mix-up while running between the wicket. He hit the ball to mid-on, called for the single and set off, only to stop after Rayudu gave him the wait signal.

But then without making any eye contact, Rayudu suddenly decided to run to the striker’s end leaving Shankar stranded in the middle. Colin Munro didn’t miss from five yards out but Rayudu was guilty of ball watching.

The wicket seemed to shake Rayudu up a little. He immediately started looking a bit more fluent in the middle and brought up his fifty with a four of Colin de Grandhomme. It had taken him 86 balls to get to the milestone.

But now he decided to take a few more risks and one of those shots almost earned him a walk back to the dressing room. He failed to read the slower ball from Colin Munro and hit it straight up. Trent Boult came running in from long-on but failed to hold on.

Rayudu survived but he mind was made up by this point. After getting to his fifty off 86 balls, he quickly smashed his way to 90 off 113 balls before being dismissed. It wasn’t his most fluent knock but it should vital in expanding his understanding of the role the no 4 batsman has to play.

“Rayudu played really well today. This was the toughest of all the five matches. From 18/4 to going on to win the game. He batted like a millionaire in the last game and he was told that. The way he came out to today was commendable,” said India coach Ravi Shastri after the game.

From what was on evidence at Wellington, Rayudu learnt his lessons well. If the ball is swinging or moving off the seam, India made not get the great starts that they have become so used to and in that scenario, Rayudu and the other middle-order batsmen need to be prepared to grind.

Shastri added: “You are bound to lose a couple of wickets sometimes,There could be days like the last two [matches], where you lose your top order early. Respect the conditions, see off the new ball; see off Trent Boult’s early spell. Look at Vijay Shankar... he came across as a guy with very good temperament.”

And sometimes just doing something once can open the pathway to regular success. India didn’t need to hit their way out of trouble. They just needed to stay in the middle for as long as possible. The manner in which Rayudu helped India recover gives hope that perhaps the troublesome no 4 position may be one step closer to being filled.