It couldn’t have been easy being Ajinkya Rahane. Going into the first Test, there was little guarantee that he would be in the Playing XI, let alone proving he still has it in him to bail India out of a sticky situation away from home.
It was not as if he oozed confidence in the practice game game against West Indies A either, the India vice-captain laboured to a painstaking half-century there.
But Rahane’s place has been somewhat of a casualty in the middle-order, with the team management’s insistence on putting form over reputation in tours gone by. It’s not as if the 31-year-old has helped his case during this time, having failed to register a single three-figure score for over two years. Rahane’s average of 24.26 during the last 48 months was among the lowest for a top-five batsman.
Add to that the Indian top-order falling cheaply in the first session of the first Test in West Indies. Pacers Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel fully exploited the movement that was on offer early on thanks to the overnight rain in Antigua and India were reduced to 25/3.
Giving Rahane company at the other end was KL Rahul, another batsman looking to redeem himself in the longest format having hit a lean patch of his own.
Rahul confidence, perhaps stemming from the fine run he had during the World Cup, stood out. Undeterred by what was happening around him, the opener showed a clear head and rarely hung his bat outside off nervously, something he has been guilty of in the past against deliveries going away.
Rahane, at the other end, was a bag of nerves: prodding, poking but happy to leave anything on the off-stump channel. He had only a solitary run to show from 30 deliveries.
But the second session was a different story. Rahane was now driving with authority and was a sight to behold down the ground – an area that he targeted at will during his innings. He explained his two-fold approach later: “The wicket was sticky and had sideways movement. The partnership [with Rahul] was important,” Rahane said.
The Mumbai batsman perhaps took a cue from Virat Kohli’s favourite buzzword – Intent. “The intent was the key, whether it was to defend or attack. I just wanted to hang in there and play as many balls as possible.”
The early threat was negotiated and the Windies bowlers also began to go astray with their lengths. After Rahul’s departure, the in-form Hanuma Vihari picked up the pace and was an assured presence for his 32.
However, Rahane did have the rub of the green when he was on 40. He skipped down the wicket off Roston Chase for a big heave and nearly undid all his hard work. However, Miguel Cummins spooned a tough chance after running backwards from mid-on. The opportunities dried up for the hosts post thereafter and post Tea, the set batsman attacked with greater authority.
But Rahane’s wait for a hundred continued after the anti-climatic end to his innings. He chopped on a delivery from Gabriel for 81, the same score he made during India’s win at Nottingham last year.
Despite having blown hot and cold at Hampshire, Rahane said his time in England played a big role in this revival.
“The county stint was important. Playing against the new ball at No 3, that helped me a lot. Playing it close to your body and playing straight; seeing off the threat of the Dukes ball in overcast conditions and then going for shots when the wicket would ease up a bit. I had good practice sessions.”
He even acknowledged in the post-match press conference the constant scrutiny over his conversion rate: “I am not concerned [about missing out on a hundred]. Yes, I was thinking about it but I am not a selfish guy and think about the team first. I just wanted to contribute.”
The tame end aside, Rahane may just have just bought himself a little more time by kicking back into gear. In West Indies, he looked like India’s dependable crisis manager again – a role he played with such authority between 2014-’17.