Ben Jones analyses the Indian captain’s superb ton.
India’s captain arrived at the crease with a nation nervous. After the dismissal of Shubman Gill, Pat Cummins’ early pressure having finally told, the intensity of the play was quite a sight. Australia had bowled immaculately all morning, and had finally banged down the door. First Gill, then Cheteshwar Pujara shortly after, and the familiar scent of collapse was in the air. India’s captain responded, walking into the heat of the battle with the game on the line, by pouring cold water on proceedings. India’s captain, Ajinkya Rahane.
Of the first 20 deliveries Rahane faced, nine of them were left alone – he has never left more often at the start of a Test innings. In the midst of all the bluster and excitement of a Boxing Day Test, sometimes just standing still and taking things in is the sensible way to approach your task. He reached 4* (30), the third lowest score he’s ever reached at that stage of an innings. At this stage in the day, the match was moving along at the same rapid pace as the pink ball game which opened the series, with runs at a premium and wickets aplenty. Rahane, in all his experience, realised that the speed of Shubman Gill’s innings was not possible to replicate without also replicating Gill’s lack of control. And so he was content to sit, and take his time.
The base, when he did play, was solid. The decision to generally set up slightly out of his crease – average impact being 1.95m from his stumps, the third furthest down of anyone in the match – helped to negate the movement of Cummins and Starc. He got well forward, playing with soft hands, not scoring a single run in the V before lunch.
In that morning session, Australia were willing to play ball with this patient approach, and hung most of their deliveries outside off stump. Rahane wasn’t hurting them in terms of scoring and so contentedly letting him leave was no bad plan. Yet after lunch, Tim Paine either instructed his bowlers to get straighter, or they simply lost their lines. 24% of the seamers’ deliveries in the afternoon session were in line with the stumps, a figure which before lunch had been only 12%, the majority of their bowling happily in the channel. Rahane obliged, tucking readily into the feast off his hip, 22 of his half-century runs coming square on the legside.
Post-lunch, Rahane scored a touch quicker as the pressure eased with that straighter line, but the session was defined by his battle with Nathan Lyon. The Aussie spinner was finding a serious amount of movement, more than 4 degrees on average across his spell, and as Cummins rested up and the other quicks rotated, Lyon was an obvious threat. Rahane’s response was to rotate, not hitting a single boundary off Lyon in that afternoon session, and instead punishing even the smallest loss of line and length by dropping deep and nudging into leg, or coming down the track and doing so. The five false shots which Rahane did give up to Lyon all came to good length deliveries, so capitalising on errors was key.
This pattern of play continued for much of the afternoon, pressure coming and going at various stages but India’s stranglehold on the Test match growing tighter with every over. Even then, the constant presence of Lyon bowling his newly tight line, similar to how Ashwin operated in the first innings here, ensured nothing moved too quickly.
Then the second new ball arrived, and everything changed – and at first, it was for worse. Rahane threw his bat at a wide ball from Starc, and the edge flew up to Steve Smith at slip, who duly let the ball through his hands. Then, things changed for the better. The second over with that new ball got the treatment, first over of second new ball; second over, got stuck into driving Cummins. A full blooded four in the V drew a beaming smile from Rahane, the sense of relief visibly washing over him. Most of the work had been done; now it was time for some fun.
His scoring areas became straighter, moving from squarer earlier in the day, those drives moving from a rarity to a once, twice an over event. His attacking shot percentage went from 18% to a massive 39%, and his last 33 deliveries (those against the second new ball) brought 31 runs. There were hard, flashing cuts through point, exaggerated flourishing flicks, an air of ostentatious flair coming through after all the hard yards, and in truth, the pressure had subsided. With the first new ball last night, one in five of Australia’s deliveries would have hit the stumps, Starc honing in full and straight and threatening – with the second new ball, it was one in twenty deliveries.
Ravindra Jadeja was an able deputy for the latter part of Rahane’s work. The left-hander hit just one boundary from his first 100 balls, a rare feat indeed for a batsman known for his dashing and aggressive strokeplay, but it summed up India’s general approach of cautious restraint. Only Rishabh Pant batted with any sort of recklessness, but even his overexuberance served a purpose, shaking Rahane out of his shell with sharp running between the wickets. India arrived with a plan, and they executed it.
Australia will be kicking themselves, there’s no question about that. Cummins’ back-breaking spell at the start of the day deserved more than the two wickets he managed, and from there Australia’s poor luck turned to self-destruction. Four catches went down across the course of the day, none of them entirely straightforward but neither were they half-chances. Our Expected Wickets model suggested that Australia’s bowling would typically bring a score of 271-9; had they held their chances, India would be almost exactly in that position.
Yet the primary reason India are not in that position, is Ajinkya Rahane. In many ways, this was an innings which needed no context. This was simply a No.4 batsman arriving with their side in trouble, seeing off a difficult spell, then accelerating and cashing in later in the day. It was a classical, clear Test innings which stands out for its quality, but not for any other reason.
The context does matter though. Rahane is stepping up as captain, replacing arguably India’s most successful Test skipper, a skipper who he ran out at the most inopportune moment in the previous match. He’s stepping up the pecking order in terms of batting alone, himself and Pujara the obvious core of a relatively inexperienced batting line-up. He’s leading a side who have, only a week previously, been dismissed for 36. To take all this into consideration makes the execution of a simple, clear Test innings, something remarkable, and something to be remembered.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.