Ajinkya Rahane’s victory in Melbourne (important both for India and personally for him), confirmed theories that have been hanging around the edges of our consciousness. For India it was a remarkable comeback, a show of strength and character, and pushed that 36 all out in Adelaide into the box titled ‘freak accidents, do not open again’. It also validated team selection with its accent on balance.
Personally for Rahane, it showcased the value of his calm, studied approach that fetched him his 12th and most important century. In 2014, when he made a century at Lord’s, he evoked another calm batsman, Gundappa Viswanath. There is no violence in anything they do. India have not lost a Test where either of them has scored a century.
But it wasn’t the batting alone. There was a calmness about Rahane’s captaincy and an assurance about his moves on the field that communicated itself to his team. He was aggressive, positive, and set attacking fields. All this calmly, almost with a smile. It was confirmation of another theory — that you can be a successful captain either in the assertive Virat Kohli manner or in the composed Rahane manner. To be calm and more importantly, the cause of calmness in others is just as important as being aggressive and the cause of aggression in others.
It showed too just how important Rahane is as vice-captain to Kohli — vice-captains play important roles, usually behind the scenes.
Ravichandran Ashwin, who has been having a good tour said in an interview, “Jinks’ (Rahane’s) calmness in the dressing room provided us that stability to go out there and express ourselves in this game.” I am not sure if he was speaking for the whole team, but perhaps after that 36 everyone was aware that the only way to go was up. It was a more relaxed team that played in Melbourne. Further confirmation, I think, that cricket teams tend to reflect the temperament of their captains.
Next big thing
That India were able to win despite missing four frontline players — Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma — is tribute to a system where graduation from the ‘A’ side is natural and players arrive ready for battle. Shubman Gill and Mohammed Siraj have come through the system and both had memorable debuts. Gill, standing upright and driving the fast bowlers displayed a disposition that usually develops with experience — the ability to clear the mind of a mistake and focus on the next delivery. He could well be the next big thing in Indian cricket. Siraj, who lost his father recently but decided to stay on in Australia, gave the impression he belonged too.
India made some bold choices, playing Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja. Pant’s uncertainty keeping to spin continues, but he is a gifted batsman who can throw bowlers off their length. Jadeja, playing his 50th Test has made nearly two thousand runs and taken over 200 wickets. Both his runs and wickets were important in Melbourne.
The Kohlis and the Gills will garner attention wherever they play and in whatever format. But there is an important lesson for India here. No Test team can afford to compete without its Cheteshwar Pujaras and Ajinkya Rahanes. Yet, the latter duo has to often fight harder than the others; the axe, or at least talk of the axe is never far when the middle order batting is discussed. Strike rates assume undue importance; the ability to grind it out is seldom given its importance.
Pujara was the hero of the last tour when India won the series for the first time in Australia. He made 43 in the first Test here, but another failure in the third Test would start the talk. Just as it did when Rahane missed out in South Africa. In his last 44 innings before this Test, he had two centuries; not enough by modern, impatient standards.
Yet, Rahane’s strike rate of 50 compares well with Steve Smith’s 55, Kane Williamson’s 52 and Kohli’s 57.
There was another battle India had to fight — bubble fatigue. Since the IPL quarantine in August, players have been in the bubble, cut off from family and friends. That’s a long time for active sportsmen to be shut away (so to speak), with little to do outside the matches. Yet India have coped well, without the kind of breaches seen with other teams. That is quite remarkable too.
Was this India’s finest away victory in this century? Perhaps. The only competition might be Perth after the ‘Monkeygate’ controversy in 2007-08. Australia did an India (of the previous Test) here – dropped catches, discovered cracks in the batting order, and found it difficult to score enough runs quickly enough to apply pressure. Now India will have to deal with the pressure of winning!