Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane: More vintage than desperate

India’s under-pressure batting duo produce an authoritative partnership on the third morning to help the visitors set a challenging total for South Africa to chase in the Wanderers Test
Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane on the Day 3 of the 2nd Test between India and South Africa(ANI)
Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane on the Day 3 of the 2nd Test between India and South Africa(ANI)
Updated on Jan 05, 2022 10:49 PM IST
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The South Africa Test series is seen a last chance for Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane to extend their international career after an extended poor run with the bat. The hallmark of elite players though is how they raise their game when the battle gets tough. The positive surge in batting by Pujara and Rahane in the second innings of the Wanderers Test could well be the difference between an Indian victory and defeat.

Pujara has time after time blocked potent bowling attacks abroad to lead the fight in his own understated way. With the pressure on them, the two seniors got together and put on a batting show. Pujara displayed controlled aggression, scoring a fluent 53 (10x4), and Rahane smashed 58 (8x4, 1x6) and raised an invaluable partnership of 111 to help India reach 266 and give themselves a total they can look to defend.

Both had failed to capitalise on starts in the first three innings on the tour and former skipper Sunil Gavaskar, doing TV commentary, said both were fighting for their places, with Shreyas Iyer and Hanuman Vihari available as ready replacements in the middle-order.

More than dealing with their personal uncertainty, the situation in the Test demanded that they take charge, which they did with some assurance. After conceding a 27-run lead on a pitch where every run is hard earned, India had lost both openers to be reduced to 44/2 after 11.4 overs.

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More than dealing with their personal uncertainty, the situation in the Test demanded that they take charge, which they did with some assurance. After conceding a 27-run lead on a pitch where every run is hard earned, India had lost both openers to be reduced to 44/2 after 11.4 overs.

The main criticism of Pujara and Rahane has been that they often go into a shell. They showed great intent this time, Pujara reaching his fifty off just 62 balls, among his fastest.

Pujara set the tone and Rahane soon opened up, an upper cut for six over point against left-arm pacer Marco Jenson exemplifying his aggression. Rahane caught up with Pujara, reaching his fifty off 67 balls with two successive fours off Duanne Olivier.

“Looking at the pitch, this has variable bounce, you never know when you get an unplayable ball. So it was part of my game plan that whenever I get a loose ball I will put it away, but I didn’t do anything extra. I think the partnership with Ajinkya was very crucial… I feel it was not just about my score but it is about the team’s total in the end,” Pujara said after stumps.

He played down the pressure going into the Test.

“The team management has always been supportive, it is just the outside noise. Everyone is behind all the players. There are times when you don’t get too many runs, but the important thing is to follow the right routines, have good work ethic and keep working on your game… I am sure this form will continue and I will get big runs in the next game as well.”

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Despite the pressure on them, when the game is in balance, they still batsmen rival teams would not want to deal with. They have built their career making tough runs in tough situations. And across Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, it was not about form but the showing the experience of dealing with the situation.

They are masters of the rescue act. Just four Tests ago, they did that in the Lord’s Test win last year against England. After conceding a 27-run lead, India had lost Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli for just 55 runs. Then too, Pujara and Rahane were dealing with form issues, but dug in to add 100 runs for the fourth wicket and lay the foundation for the win.

At Lord’s, their defensive game was to the fore as the situation demanded that. The Wanderers situation though called for an attacking approach. The pitch offered so much assistance to the pace bowlers that getting quick runs is the best option as any delivery could have your number.

That’s why the half-century on Wednesday would give the two senior batters great satisfaction. Batting against his natural grain, it was Pujara who led India’s fightback. He constantly looked to score, building a positive rhythm to his batting. He had raced to 35 off just 42 balls, with seven fours, to help India reach stumps on Day 2 58 runs ahead.

The morning session was crucial. The question was whether Pujara would be able to continue in the same manner? To the pleasant surprise of his fans and critics, the India No 3 continued to bat aggressively, ensuring India will have a fighting total to defend. In the end, they set South Africa 240. Although the hosts were 118/2 at stumps, Indian bowlers will still fancy their chances of bowling the team to a series-clinching win.

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Rahane, resuming on 11, drew confidence from his batting partner and blossomed. Strokes flowed from the bat of both experienced players as the SA bowling attack looked clueless. Rahane was caught behind first ball in the first innings fishing outside off-stump. This time he showed total control over his hands, keeping in check the instinct to follow the ball.

SA started the proceedings with left-arm Jansen and Lungi Ngidi for their ability to keep things tight. But they were not allowed to settle.

A flurry of shots that fetched 16 runs in the first three overs set the tone. Pujara, who had a strike rate of 83.33 the previous evening, began with two fours in the second over bowled by Ngidi. The first was glanced fine and second was driven through mid-on. Rahane then unfurled the silkiest stroke of the day, driving past Jansen.

It took an inspired burst from Kagiso Rabada to end the Pujara-Rahane show, but the two had done enough to show why they remain central to India’s plans in tough conditions.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2022