It was the 83rd over of the Indian innings on Sunday at Melbourne Cricket Ground. In the final session of a hard-fought day for India, Mitchell Starc had the new ball in his hand. Till then in the series, he had taken wickets in three out of the four times that he had a brand new cherry to bowl with and should really have had another in his previous over too. Steaming into the bowling crease, he floated a tempting full ball outside the offstump. And Ajinkya Rahane, unbeaten in the innings, was beaten by his own impatience as he threw his bat at that wide delivery.
The Indian captain knew he had made a mistake. The gloves went up to the helmet and he gently punched it a few times, like a kid who had gotten his mathematics calculations wrong in an exam. When he got back on strike for the next ball, the camera was fixated on his face. You did not have to be a lip-reading expert to figure out he was saying: “Come on, come on, watch the ball.”
Two deliveries later, Starc bowled another wide delivery and this time, Rahane watched the ball. He watched it from the hand of the bowler, onto the middle of his bat, and sail over the fielders on the off-side for four.
A few deliveries later, he watched the ball again as it raced to the boundary through point. Short and not really wide, but Rahane was not going to miss out on that. With arguably the most authoritative shot he had played all day, he reached what is probably the most significant century of his Test career so far.
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There are a couple of ways to look at Rahane’s innings. As a standalone Test match knock, it was not the most fluent of centuries but it was hard-fought, methodical, and calculated. He respected the bowlers, each of them world class, but he trusted his defence. The forward push was more authoritative than it was in Adelaide.
It was a tough pitch, mind you. He started off slowly, taking 17 deliveries to score his first run. He left frequently early on, resisting the temptation to drive. He accelerated steadily through the innings, after a patient partnership with Hanuma Vihari that was followed by a momentum-shifting one with Rishabh Pant. And finally, his last 30 runs came off 30 deliveries as he made sure Australia did not come back into the match late on in the day. It was a century to be proud of, even when you stripped out the context in which it happened.
But add in the context, and it gets elevated to one of India’s most memorable away from home.
It came in the innings after he was out for a duck in Adelaide, which saw India get blown away for 36, in case you had not heard. It came in a match where he was not just *a* middle order batsman for India, he was *the* middle order batsman for India. It came when he was leading his team, in the absence of Virat Kohli. It came when his needed it the most, because at 64/3, Australia were buzzing.
And remember, this is an Australian attack that is comprised of four men who will all feature in conversations of the best to have represented the country. Starc reached 250 wickets on Sunday, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood reached milestones of 150 and 200 in Adelaide, and Nathan Lyon is not far away from 400. Between them, they have a combined total of 995 wickets.
They kept at it through the day and there were not many easy deliveries. There were very few easy runs on offer. Unlike his previous century at the venue in 2014, where he showcased an array of attacking strokes in the company of Kohli, the 12th of his career and second at MCG was all about restraint.
Rahane had his chances, too. He was dropped in the 70s once, and then again at the end of the day’s play. He expertly placed the ball between wicketkeeper and the wide slip once when on 57, when easily he could have found the fielder.
In the analysis of 36 all out, the luck factor should not be ignored because India were simply edging every other good delivery and finding the fielders. In the analysis of this Rahane century too, luck played its role. But, as a cliche as old-fashioned as Rahane himself goes, good athletes make their own luck and make it count.
At stumps, day 2
|Mayank Agarwal||lbw Mitchell Starc||0||6||0|
|Shubman Gill||c Tim Paine b Pat Cummins||45||65||8|
|Cheteshwar Pujara||c Tim Paine b Pat Cummins||17||70||1|
|Hanuma Vihari||c Steve Smith b Nathan Lyon||21||66||2|
|Rishabh Pant||c Tim Paine b Mitchell Starc||29||40||3|
On the Sony Network’s broadcast, commentator Harsha Bhogle made an important observation: watching just the highlights of this Ajinkya Rahane innings almost wouldn’t do it full justice. Indeed so, this was about so much else one could not possibly include in a short clip. In the official eight-minute highlights video of day two, Rahane features just for 30 seconds or so in the first five minutes, at which point he reached his half century.
In the days and even years ahead, the boundaries would be remembered but the essence of that effort was the ones he spent away from the limelight: the deliveries he left, ones he dead-batted on his front-foot, the soft hands that ensured edges the ball, the images of him standing at the non-striker’s end looking at the turf and refocussing himself, the muttering of “watch the ball, watch the ball.”