The old cliché says that the Test captaincy is the second-most important job in Australia. In India, the stakes are higher again — especially for a man walking in the shadow of global mega-brand Virat Kohli.
With his canny tactical manoeuvring of the first day and again with the bat on day two, Ajinkya Rahane is channelling inconceivable pressures with rare composure.
On an overcast day at the MCG, Rahane batted for all but the first 11 overs, absorbing 200 deliveries to make his 12th Test century.
Upon bringing up his milestone, he calmly removed his helmet and acknowledged his teammates with an unpretentious wave of the bat. Rahane’s pulse hardly seemed to quicken all day in the face of often-brilliant bowling, which hints at why he is now the series’ only centurion.
It is also why India finished on 5-277, leading by 82 runs with five first-innings wickets and three days remaining.
Is Rahane a better captain than Kohli? Only those in India’s inner sanctum could definitively say, and they’re also the least likely to do so.
Although he rose from humble beginnings, he is certainly less representative of his nation’s increasing affluence and cultural power, lacking Kohli’s marketability and flair.
Whereas Kohli is an unmistakable product of the Twenty20 age, Rahane is of a more classical school — manicured but not preening, measured in all he does and says but never unduly deferential, as easily imagined in Ranji’s flannels as an IPL kit.
For those reasons and others more practical, he was able to gradually dominate Australia in conditions that again favoured the bowlers. And yet, for much of the day the skipper took a back seat to those around him, the two notables being debutant opener Shubman Gill and the returning Rishabh Pant.
Rahane the constant on another day of excellent bowling
Gill had cracked 28 attractive runs late on day one and advanced his maiden Test innings to 45, including eight charming boundaries, when he tried to flay Pat Cummins through cover and edged behind to Tim Paine. Allan Border, never one for lavish praise, was moved enough to say: “There’s something special about him”.
Others have compared the 21-year-old to VVS Laxman, although here the initials could have stood for “very very streaky”.
It cannot be classed as unlucky when your sixth nick in 11 overs goes to hand, but with patience and a tightening of his defences, Gill looks capable of providing a decade of viewing pleasure and thousands of runs. He also made the selection of Prithvi Shaw in Adelaide look like dart-board strategy.
The real heart-starter was the cameo of Pant, whose 29 from 40 deliveries spanned barely 15 overs but ignited the contest, such is his force of personality.
Pant’s arrival at the crease in Tests is often like that point in a teen movie when someone forces a keg through the front door of a pristine mansion.
There had been a lot of talk leading into this series that Pant was a confused player — omitted from the limited overs squads, out of favour as a gloveman, unsure of his role. If that clouded his thinking, as some claimed, there was initially no sign of it here.
When Cummins returned to the attack well-rested from a brilliant performance in the morning, Pant stood well out of his crease and went straight after him, driving, pulling and slashing boundaries in an over that cost the same as Cummins’ entire first spell.
His departure — chopping impetuously at a half-tracker to give Mitchell Starc his 250th Test wicket — would have given his critics a sense of vindication, but Australian memories are still fresh of Pant’s undefeated 159 at Sydney two years ago, and his higher aggregate than Kohli in India’s historic series win.
He might be a thorn in their side again.
Sloppy Aussies drop catches and miss chances
India was 5-173 when Pant fell. The balance of the contest was precarious. Yet the Australians have seen enough of Ravindra Jadeja to know they hadn’t opened up the other end. Sure enough, a century stand with Rahane ensued, the Indian pair riding their luck.
On 57, Rahane was drawn into a false stroke by the hardworking Starc, but the bowler watched in horror as it flew at catching height through the vacant first slip region and slammed into the fence.
At the other end, Jadeja was initially like Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun, blithely avoiding one calamity after another. Then he settled, and Australia sagged. Have more catching chances completely eluded contact with Australian hands in a single day than here?
Jadeja finished undefeated on 40 from 104 deliveries, one of his more composed efforts.
It all rather overshadowed Australia’s impeccable bowling performance of the early stages. Cummins’s 2-12 from eight overs in the morning was both his longest spell in a home Test and close to his most brilliant.
His removal of Gill was followed quickly by the crucial wicket of Pujara. But those were false dawns.
Paine will have better days than this one. Effectively shuffling between five prodigious bowling talents remains the Australian skipper’s trickiest task and one ripe for armchair criticism. But it was a little puzzling to see him opt for second-gamer Cameron Green after 11 overs on day two, then keep him on when
Rahane was new at the crease and his previous frailties against Nathan Lyon suggested the introduction of spin.
It also meant Starc waited almost 80 minutes for his first blast of the day, and it wasn’t until the 24th over that Lyon finally appeared — nine minutes before lunch, Rahane having faced 34 deliveries to acclimatise.
Immediately he extracted awkward turn and bounce, but Rahane was off and away, and thus India too.
It is possibly the magnifying effect of a grand performance like Rahane’s knock, but Australia faltered in myriad subtle ways.
There was its wastage of the second new ball, its dropped catches and some ragged outfielding. Head caught the eye for the wrong reasons with short leg fielding that replicated the early scenes of Awakenings and a shambolic drop of Rahane off what proved the final delivery of the day.
They’re small things, but Australia will need to do them far better to claw this game back.