Rahane showcases his No. 6 mettle
On this trip to South Africa, Ajinkya Rahane has taken blows from Dale Steyn bouncers that have not got up as expected, making his ducking technique look ungainly. He has also shown too much deference to a senior bowler who has shown scant respect for the specialist batsmen batting at the other end. He has paid for it, being stranded on 51, and possibly with a series defeat.
Rahane also got India two run-outs to save the team in Johannesburg. He also cut Vernon Philander for a six in Durban. For a man who had spent many a tour and series warming up the bench, carrying drinks, wondering when his opportunity will come, he has taken his chance with both hands, even though it arrived in the most difficult of conditions to bat in. Over the past 10 days of cricket, you can see Rahane has grown as a batsman. India knew they had Virat kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara; Rahane might just be their biggest gain from this Test series.
Rahane has gone about his work in a quiet unassuming fashion. Much like his batting. Most importantly, though, he has shown ticker. Even when he was taking those blows in the first innings from Steyn, and the verbals that came with it, Rahane didn't play a soft shot. He battled on, though it was questionable to give Zaheer Khan the strike with five deliveries to go in a Steyn over. Sure enough, two wickets fell in those five balls, including a dreadful swipe from Zaheer first up. It made you wonder if No. 6, a position which requires a strong personality and big-hitting when batting with the tail, was the place for him.
In the second innings, Rahane showed it was. He was clear in raising his hand to Zaheer, who wanted to the singles, sending him back to the non-striker's end. When the need arose for the big hits, Rahane got them successfully away even with eight fielders back. That cut for six, which took Rahane from 90 to 96, is not what many have seen in a Test in Durban. Rahane might have missed out on the hundred, but he showed versatility: resolute defence, concentration, firmness to farm strikes with seniors, willingness to look ugly in the pursuit of scoring runs, and big hitting when needed.
Rahane was India's only highlight on a bleak final day of what had otherwise been a decent series for them. "Rahane batted really well," captain MS Dhoni said. "[While] he was with us on bench, he kept working hard on fitness and technique, and how he wanted to approach his game. So when he got his chance, the most important thing was to accept it and do well. In this Test series has batted really well. Looked quite compact in all the innings. That's a big positive for us."
Rahane finished as India's third-highest run-getter in the series, but he was in the most precarious position of all before the series began. He is not picked for ODIs, which gives him no buffer if he fails in the Tests. He has had no soft launching pad. Like Kohli in the West Indies and Australia, he has had his first real series in testing conditions. Kohli was dropped after that West Indies tour in 2011 after he had some trouble with the short ball. Kohli has previously said that axing was a big lesson for him.
This 96 has made sure Rahane will not have to bounce back like Kohli had to. Especially not if he keeps wearing those blows as medals and keeps coming back up for more.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo