Ajinkya Rahane’s innings at Basin Reserve was a study in the purity of stroke-play. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the 118-run masterpiece.
There is a reason why the words pure and straight are often used in the same sense. Add to that mix the picture of Basin Reserve — with its grass banks, backdrop of mountains and Ajinkya Rahane at the crease. We come across a third synonym, linking the two words with a seal of fluid, pristine batsmanship — a delight visual, aural and wholesome.
The second day of the Test match contained many a sparkle and fizz.
Virat Kohli pulled with disdain, flicked with contempt, before treading the route of overconfidence and falling to an obvious trap.
MS Dhoni gushed forth like uncorked champagne, sending adrenaline surging high, hitting Neil Wagner for four boundaries off successive balls. The cover-drive, the pull, the blast through point and finally, the lofted straight drive — every stroke bearing the very signature of spunk and chutzpah. And if that was not enough, when Tim Southee ran in with the new ball, the Indian captain walked down the wicket and nonchalantly launched him over long off for six.
Even Ravindra Jadeja pulled, drove, and steered with audacity. In between, the action was full of other riveting events. Rohit Sharma lunged beyond the confines reach and reason to drag a ball onto his woodwork. Wagner often indicated that he would be more keen to bowl from somewhere around extra cover. He went wider and wider at the crease, and was finally pulled up for a no ball, his effort and success disallowed when Zaheer Khan was caught in the slips. It enabled the veteran Indian pace bowler to enjoy himself with a light-hearted cameo.
And amidst all these heady moments, Rahane flowed at the other end. Like smooth burgundy from the choicest pinot noir, the intoxication lying in the quiet sip and savour of the connoisseur rather than the escaping bubbles of instant thrill.
The New Zealand bowlers ran in, delivered with every ounce of effort and zeal, and always looked up to find themselves staring at the vertical face of his bat. The head remained steady, the ball was played late. When it rose on him, he got nicely on top. And when it was pitched in his zone, the bat came down with grace, steadfastly straight, essaying immaculate drives, down the ground and through the covers, with little effort and crispest of timing.
Kohli, the current prince of the Indian crease, had fallen to the drive, hitting straight to one of the two men stationed short at cover. The ploy was repeated for the Mumbai man. Two short covers were set, straightish and alert, with a mid-off prowling behind them, and a man patrolling the deep cover fence. Slips and gully waited for the snick from an eager stroke through the gap in the off-side arc.
And Rahane leaned into his strokes and kept threading the field, with the finesse of the needlepoint virtuoso, the timing and placement picture perfect. As many as eight boundaries flowed between mid-off and deep cover. When the offering was straighter, there were two more drives, through mid-on, the other side the wicket, but the same delectable delight.
On occasions when the ball was short, he punched off the back-foot, in rare moments resorting to the horizontal bat to cut it behind square — scarcely finding fielders and almost always the boundary.
Each drive through the covers was classical in style and splendid in execution — but even among them one stood out as special, the crowning jewel among the gleaming collection. He had just driven Trent Boult to the cover fence with another superb exhibition of timing to move to 73. The sweeper remained stationed, Boult ran in again, the next ball a touch shorter, not quite full enough for the earlier stroke. And Rahane leaned into it, caressing it on the up, yet again finding the middle of the bat and an angle and gap in the field imperceptible to the naked eye. The man at the boundary ran at full tilt, but the precision beat him to the fence.
If the rest of the Indian batting was remarkable for the flash and flair, Rahane stood out for the glow and glint of pedigree. Not that he is incapable of the arrogant demolition that characterises a Kohli or a Dhoni. With partners fast running out, he got to his hundred with a flowing pull shot and celebrated with little frill and plenty of poise. And then he did provide rewarding glimpses of his versatility. Four balls after bringing up his landmark, he hoisted Corey Anderson twice, over mid-wicket and cover, on both occasions the bat remained as vertical as all through his innings.
Finally, there was the departure from the straight bat, and in a fashion spectacular. Wagner charged in and bounced, and Rahane swivelled twinkle-toed, and unfurled his hook shot. The stroke was languid, essayed with consummate ease, and the ball flew high and handsome over the crowd that lolled on the grass-banks onto a distant tent set up beyond the square leg boundary. Even with the tail-enders for company, the display of strokes did not deviate from the classical tenets of cricket and left the soul fulfilled to the brim.
With the focus unwaveringly on the ethereal abilities of Kohli and the colossal run making efforts of Cheteshwar Pujara, Rahane has made his quiet unassuming way into the big league. After his 96 at Durban, this Wellington innings is testimony to his boundless capability and class.
It does seem that the bedrock of the batting future has been established with the soundest foundation.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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