On some rare occasions, one person represents the character of the entire team. In many ways, Ajinkya Rahane was the face of this Indian team during their tour of South Africa.
Of course, they lost the series 0-1 after a shambolic batting effort on the fifth day of the second Test at Kingsmead, but that will not take away from them the fight they showed on this trip, courage to stand up to the South African pace bowlers and none better showcased it than Rahane.
Their two one-day outings had given foreboding signals of a massive system failure. But in Tests, the Indians showed they were up and ready for a scrap, rather unexpectedly. There were hundreds by Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara in the Wanderers Test that brought India so close to a famous victory before AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis blocked their path.
In matches that offer such wonderful individual performances and thrilling climax, a knock of 47, the score Rahane made in his first innings in South Africa, would often remain as an unnoticed footnote. But that little, seemingly insignificant innings gave the team management the courage to persist with Rahane for the second Test, even ahead of R Ashwin.
He repaid them with two fifties. Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni acknowledged it. “He batted really well. The amount of time he was with us on bench, he kept working on his technique and fitness and how he wanted to approach the game. So, when he got his chance, he accepted it and did well in the Tests. More importantly, he looked quite compact out there and that was a big positive for us,” said Dhoni.
There were expectations on Kohli and Pujara to succeed on this tour after their recent exploits, but Rahane came as a rank outsider, which somehow mirrored India’s own image as no-hopers prior to the tour. Rahane finishing as the third highest run-getter for India, ahead of the likes of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, was beyond imagination, like the fight India produced for a major part of the series.
Rahane stood tall against Dale Steyn – went through a barrage of short-pitched deliveries and sledges – and came out with full marks, particularly in the second innings of the second Test when he made a 96. There was one occasion when Steyn pinged flush on his helmet, and then showered Rahane with the choicest of words.
The Mumbaikar didn’t flinch in the face of that raw aggression, and nobody would have faulted if he had. At one end was the world’s best fast bowler all fired up, and at the other end was a batsman still cutting his teeth in international cricket. But all at 5’6” inches, he dared to stare back at Steyn.
He didn’t talk back, but a couple of deliveries later played an exquisite straight drive that sped past Steyn to the ropes. This time Steyn smiled, and Rahane returned the favour. Steyn searched Rahane’s depth with a probing spell, and the young man showed the reservoir of his courage ran deep.
Similarly, M Vijay too arrived in South Africa with more nay-sayers behind him than supporters. But Vijay showed that he has some substance beneath his flashy exterior, a stomach to fight it out against the best on tough terrains. While for Rohit and Dhawan, who came to the Rainbow Nation with a Test average that resembled a skyscraper, the tour was a leveler.
Dhawan by now may have realized that batting in Tests is not all about blasting the opposition out of the park, and at times patience will yield as good a result. Of the four times he got out in this series, Rohit was bowled twice and trapped in front of the wicket and caught behind once each, and those dismissals underscored the need of a tighter technique. Bowlers too fared well from an overall perspective, and veteran Zaheer Khan bowled with a lot of fire before heavy workload took its toll on him and others in the end stages of the Durban Test.
Justifiably, Dhoni expressed confidence that this team would do better with more exposure. “Fantastic to see them giving a fight. We have all the right ingredients – 15-17 good players and this tour was a good exposure for many of them playing here for the first time. They will get more exposure as they play more Tests. Yes, we could have done better, especially in those two sessions in Johannesburg and Durban,” said Dhoni. They could have, but this team certainly has better tomorrows in front of them.