Rahane shows his X-factor
As Ajinkya Rahane sat down to address the end-of-day press conference after scoring his maiden Test century, a senior journalist, who has known him for years, walked up. He told Rahane he was going to ask the centurion a question in Marathi, Rahane's mother tongue. Rahane, to put it mildly, isn't the most eloquent man when he speaks English or Hindi, and the journalist told him he'd better give him a decent answer in Marathi. Rahane grinned sheepishly and nodded like a dutiful schoolboy.
He is that sort of man, the sort who will give you a hurt look if you politely turn down his offer of tea at his house, the sort who will apologise if he couldn't pick up your call. "So sorry, but I was out with family."
How, you wondered, would this almost meek boy survive in this team of superstars and superstar-size egos, when he first came into the side.
He had a mountain of first-class runs backing him, of course, but did he have what goes around by the queer name of X-factor? Did he have that extra edge in his game and personality that separates top-class international players from the rest? Was he merely humble, or was he unable to assert himself, unable to absorb real pressure? After his first two Test tours to South Africa and New Zealand, we can safely conclude it must be the former. Underneath that seemingly soft exterior lurks a solid Test batsman, and he was on display at the Basin Reserve.
Rahane walked in at 165 for 5 and left at 423 for 9. He didn't hunt down the opposition with the magnetic force of Virat Kohli. He didn't leave you marveling at his style and the beauty of his strokes like Rohit Sharma. He didn't make you feel the intensity of the effort he was putting in like Cheteshwar Pujara. He made a pretty cultured century under pressure, but he did it so unobtrusively you were actually shocked to look at the scoreboard once and find he was already on 90.
And how expertly he had got there. His judgment of his off stump was superb. Anything not too wide or too close was left, barring a couple of edges that fortunately went through gaps in the cordon. A few others were played softly enough to not carry. The front-foot drives, body leaning into the stroke, were of a man eager to score and sure of his execution. The back-foot punches, following from where he left off in South Africa, showed his ability to get on top of the considerable bounce and still hit boundaries, a quality not many batsmen possess.
He had had a clear plan and was determined to stick to it whatever the temptation. "I was focusing on getting them to bowl to my strength," Rahane said. "That plan was successful. When they were bowling outside off, my plan was to keep leaving. Even if they bowl there all day, I will leave all day. Finally they had to bowl to my plan. They needed wickets dearly."
The wickets were going down at the other end, though. Rahane was still on 90 when Zaheer Khan joined him, and promptly swished his second ball for four. Not too long ago, Rahane had almost been in tears when he was last out for 96 in Durban. "I know how crucial four runs are now, because hundred is a hundred. When you get out on 96, it comes in fifties," the Mumbai batsman in him explained.
Four dots next over. Fifth ball, he walked out and turned through midwicket. Three, if there was no Zaheer. Only two were trotted. Next ball sprayed too wide outside off to prevent him from taking the single. Called wide. Last ball he tried to turn to midwicket again.
That brought a fortuitous edge over the cordon for four. This was to be the day.
That precious hundred came with a pulled boundary. It had taken more than 5500 first-class runs and 20 first-class hundreds. It had taken years on the bench, years spent watching your competitors get there before him, get there many times. Did he feel frustrated? Did he fret about when his chance would come? His reply, that they were his "seniors", was representative of the man.
"This thought never came to my mind," he said. "Rohit and Virat are senior to me. When I was not playing I was learning from them as well. What improvements they have made to their game, what kind of shots they play and how they play in different situations. Definitely I learned a lot. I never thought that they have got hundreds and I have not got an opportunity."
As representative was the muted celebration. He looked as if he felt he would antagonise the world if he displayed a shred more emotion than the low limit he had set. A few of his friends were watching from the wooden benches at the Basin, and they had set no such limits.
They wept openly, and happily. And for once, you could say with conviction that it couldn't have happened to a nicer man.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo