Rahane quietly bedding in as India's No. 6
When little Ajinkya Rahane used to lug his cricket kit in crowded Bombay local trains, from Dombivli to Victoria Terminus, an hour in fast services, longer in the slow one that stops at every station, it is highly unlikely he wanted to become a No. 6 batsman.
Fathers don't tell their kids, "Son, my only dream is to see you bat at No. 6." No. 6 is not sexy. You don't face the bowlers at their freshest, you don't get to set the tone, you are just reacting to the stage that has been set for you, sometimes really tough conditions even settle down by the time you come in to bat. When the pitch is easy you hardly get to bat; when the pitch is difficult, you get the tail for company. Your No. 6 has to be tough enough to score crucial runs, prepared for innings that don't have proper structure, content with not cashing in on flat ones, and happy with the opener or the No. 4 being the man.
Rahane, although an opener by training, might just be that man for India. He scored this Lord's hundred - special because everybody he knew built Lord's up massively by Wednesday night - from No. 5, but he is a No. 6 for all practical purposes: MS Dhoni comes in immediately after him. That century scored, rescuing India from 145 for 7, Rahane sought to sit back and deflect attention onto others. He kept repeating the innings was thanks to the top-order batsmen who had seen off the most difficult conditions. He thanked Bhuvneshwar Kumar for sticking around with him.
But if you looked up at the players' balcony when he brought up the hundred, with a push for four off James Anderson, England's best bowler and the bowler whose behaviour India have complained officially against, the sight of every member of the squad applauding that hundred told you he was the man. He had weathered the storm, shown enough discipline to score just one run behind square on the off side, played some gorgeous push-drives before lofting Anderson for a delightful six over long-on.
On Wednesday night Rahane had been nervous. Everyone kept reminding him how special a Lord's century could be. He had himself played a nervous shot to get out in the second innings of the last Test, just a nervous poke at a delivery he could have left alone. Rahane is prone to that. He is a nervous starter. He needs to watch for that push lacking intent early in the innings. This was Lord's, the ball was swinging and seaming, and wickets were tumbling at the other end.
Rahane did show signs of those nerves at the start; his first three balls: an edge that fell short of the cordon, beaten outside off, a single off the inside edge. But in the 37th over things clicked. He had faced nine balls by then. Now he began to get a solid forward stride in, and drove at a wide half-volley with an open face. Later in that over, he pushed one down the ground for four. The innings was underway, except that by the time he had faced 38 balls, Rahane had lost Cheteshwar Pujara and Dhoni. Now he would need to change his game.
Rahane didn't change. With every new batsman he had a chat. Were they comfortable if he took the single early in the over? It took you back to that endearing conversation he had with Ishant Sharma in Durban, with the latter saying he didn't want to face Dale Steyn. There, Rahane fell two short of what would have been a maiden century. He says he has made an attempt to not think of the hundred after that.
Ravindra Jadeja and Stuart Binny could not keep him company for long, but Rahane found an ally in Bhuvneshwar, who nearly scored a third fifty of this series. Like VVS Laxman before him, Rahane trusts tailenders, and doesn't try to hog the strike unless they ask him to. He also says he has been watching videos of Michael Hussey to learn how to bat with the tail. One of the important skills while batting with the tail is to be able to play big shots. You never know if the next over will leave you stranded.
Rahane has made that addition to his game of late. About three years ago, some domestic stalwarts used to fear Rahane would not make it because he did not have the bottle or the big shots. In this innings he showed he had both. Bottle in surviving the early spell, big shots when England were waiting for the new ball. His fifty came in the 71st over of the innings with the new ball almost certain to inflict damage. But by the time the new ball came, Rahane had raced along to 74, cutting Liam Plunkett in front of square repeatedly to avoid the third man trap, and pulling him emphatically.
When the new ball arrived, Rahane went after Anderson. Four, six, and he is 88. Four, four, and 98. Discipline, timing, placement, power, aggression had all been on display. When he reached the hundred, Rahane didn't make a big deal out of it. He showed more emotion when Bhuvneshwar got out, to a bit of a shooter. Bhuvneshwar was half way off the ground when Rahane caught up with him, patted his back, a little thank you there, and a big thank you in the press conference. This No. 6 is quietly bedding in.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo