India vs West Indies: Ajinkya Rahane – Watching the ball closely, drags India out of mire
Virat Kohli looked at his bat, he looked behind and then looked at the pitch. He had furrowed eyebrows as he spotted the area from where the ball leapt up and caught him in a tangle. Shannon Gabriel was mobbed by his teammates, India, put into bat, had lost three wickets, and their captain was leaving the scene with a puzzled look on his face.
The number 1 Test side in the world was reduced to 25 for 3 and two batsmen who were short of runs and two batsmen who were battling for relevance were out there. Barring Virat Kohli, the camera is not too bothered with other Indian players, as they have a very stoic expression and give you nothing which is good for television - and yet, the cameras zoomed in when Ajinkya Rahane was on strike. His lips were moving, they appeared to say ‘watch the ball, closely’.
In the past, Rahane has spoken about the process of visualisation and meditation and when pushed to a corner, these mutterings came back as a form of visualisation and it was his form of meditation. There were no lazy wafts outside the off stump, there were no casual pokes to balls on the fifth stump, the bat came straight down and met the ball, the front foot stride became more assured, the backfoot play against the short-pitched stuff was resolute - in a nutshell, it was Ajinkya Rahane and it was India’s umbrella man spreading wings, after a huge gap.
Yes, the strike rate was stagnant, but there was control and when the side has been reduced to the mire in the first 45 minutes, no one really cares about a galloping scoreboard. In Test cricket, there can be no winners, there can be no losers, and yet people win and lose. India’s vice-captain, who loves to slash outside the off stump, put away these strokes as the pitch had moisture and the ball bounced more than expected. He also, put away the drives on the up through covers - he did not care about the strike rate, he was watching the ball, closely.
WATCH: Ajinkya Rahane’s brilliant innings of 81
Kemar Roach gallops in, he jumps wide of the crease and uses the angle to slant the ball back in. The batsman thinks the ball is aimed for the stumps, he has to play it and then the red nut lands on the seam and deviates away, it grabs the edge. Roach exults, the batsman shrugs his shoulders and walks away. Mayank Agarwal walked away, Cheteshwar Pujara walked away, Rahane was watching the ball closely - he got his front foot across, sussed the delivery and shouldered arms.
“At the start of our innings, the wicket was tricky. It was a bit sticky (spongy bounce) and there was sideways movement. Throughout the day, they bowled pretty well. What was important was to have a partnership going and still be positive in our intent. The partnership with Rahul was crucial at that situation. We were not thinking too far ahead. The motive was to play one ball at a time and take it on from there,” Rahane said at the end of the match.
There is a reason why Test cricket is equated to life in general - it allows you to forge a comeback, it tests you out, it asks you questions, you can either flounder around for answers, or look them in the eye and fashion a riposte. Rahane negated the tough phase and Miguel Cummins happened - the loose deliveries came about, balls were pitched too full and it made life easier. The forward press which was always confident ensured the ball was laced through covers and then down the ground past mid off.
There was one moment where Rahane, for all his control, appeared to give it all away. He raced down the track and tried to loft Roston Chase over long on, miscued the shot but the ball eluded Cummins who was running back from mid on. He chastised himself and then never was so expansive again in the innings. And yet, when he eventually perished, it was the same failings - the ball was shortish on the fourth stump, Rahane rose up, tried to force it away through point, the ball took the inside edge and crashed into the stumps. For once, he did not watch the ball, closely and the bubble burst. Life...Test cricket!
It has been 29 innings now, Rahane has not notched up a Test century, but he put out a brave face, speaking about the ethos of team sport and exuding happiness at his own innings in the context of the game. When he walks out in the second innings, his talks need to be more intense and for longer periods of time, for Test runs are precious, especially when you have shunned your natural game - watch the ball, closely!