Rahul, Pant light up the contest with bravado
On his way to his first century of the tour, KL Rahul was cruising. KL Rahul must also be cursing.
It had been a tour full of agony for him until Tuesday morning. In Southampton, Stuart Broad had beaten Rahul with two inswingers: one uprooted his stump, the second, a grubber, trapped him plumb. At Trent Bridge, his best showing before Tuesday, Rahul fell to the set up by Chris Woakes to be trapped by an inswinger, and was bowled in the second innings by Ben Stokes.
At Lord's, Rahul nicked at a delivery from James Anderson that was leaving him. In the second innings, Anderson brought the ball in and trapped Rahul.
At Edgbaston, in the first innings of the series, Rahul had played-on against Sam Curran, trying to play at an angled, fuller ball, wide outside off stump. In the second, Stokes defeated him with a jaffa as the ball swerved in to begin with, luring Rahul to play and then opened him up while moving away after pitching, taking the outside edge.
Rahul had been bowled five times, the most for an Indian batsman this series. Include the two lbws, that would make it two more than any other player across both teams to get out to those two modes of dismissals. Rahul's average before this Test was 14.12.
So, by the time Rahul arrived for the final Test, he had been rattled. He had tried everything: playing time, playing as late as possible, defending as many balls possible, but nothing worked. He was even lucky to be picked for the final Test, but his ace slip catching and belief of the team management allowed Rahul one more chance. He had to take it, otherwise the probability of him being dropped for even a home series were rising.
Already on Saturday, Rahul had showed that he was going to hit himself out of a troubled summer. It was no doubt a risk-laden ploy, but if that was the only way he could wipe out the mental cobwebs, then why not. This confident mindset was allowing Rahul to think runs and not how to make runs as was the case in the preceding four Tests.
On Monday evening, Rahul walked in with similar attitude. He was going to defend himself by attacking and it worked. Tuesday morning, he set the day rolling with a flicked boundary off Anderson. It brought him his first half-century of the series, also the first by an Indian opener. He would finish the first hour on an anxious note, having just survived a review after Moeen Ali had hit him on the shin as the batsman attempted to flick by going across. The impact was outside the line. Rahul was on 62.
Off the first ball in Moeen's following over, Rahul lined up nicely for an inside-out drive for a four. He would skip into the 80s and then into the 90s sweeping, reverse-sweeping. Then he would blast Stokes over the cover boundary to remind the bowler and the fans of why he owns the record for the fastest IPL fifty earlier this year, off 14 deliveries.
A top-edged hook would get him another four and three short of his fifth Test century. Stokes would fire two more short-pitched deliveries. Rahul would not bother reacting. But as soon as Stokes bowled a short one on off stump, Rahul flat-batted the ball down the ground for his first century of the series.
He would celebrate quietly, barely raising his head and the bat. Rahul realised what mental toughness, discipline, rigour meant in this innings. He might be cursing himself why he did not exercise all this in the past month.
Rishabh Pant scored 89 runs off 96 balls in the second session. Sixty of those 96 balls were dots. He had 13 fours and two sixes - the first of which took him into the 90s, the second brought up his maiden Test hundred, making him the first Indian wicketkeeper to score a Test century in England.
Pant was under pressure. A 29-ball duck in Southampton, after unleashing a six as his first scoring shot in Tests, showed he was shackled. But on Tuesday Pant played with freedom. It did not matter that India had just five more wickets to lose 4-1. Ravindra Jadeja was the only batsman to follow him.
But the pitch was as flat as it could get. Just like Rahul, Pant got bolder every ball. Stokes kept firing short stuff. Pant kept cutting and pulling him for fours. He did not care if Moeen or Adil Rashid pitched the ball on the rough or bowled the wrong'un. He lofted Rashid for a six just before and after tea.
In the last over before the second new ball was available, Pant went for a wild hoick against Rashid, but he was beaten by the wrong'un. But Pant was not embarrassed. The ball also beat both wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow and Stokes at first slip, and fetched India four byes. Pant was smiling.
Incredibly in the wicketless second session, the third time Indian batsmen achieved that feat in the series, Rahul faced 84 balls to score just 34 runs. But Rahul was playing the holding role in the second session. He looked in command now while defending too. Of course, the ball was not darting, swinging, even shooting along the pitch. Rahul was knocking the ball as if he was taking throwdowns in the nets. Both those batsmen built pressure in different ways at the two ends.
This was exactly the style of cricket professed by Kohli and the coach Ravi Shastri, who both wanted their batsmen to play fearless cricket. Root did not take the new ball for 10 more overs. He did not want to blink, too. He wanted to test Pant's ego. Despite the target being reachable in T20 terms, it was still India that needed to go for victory.
The pressure built as the minutes ticked. The Indians fans screamed, "come on, Rishabh." The English fans clapped and urged their team on, chanting "come on, England." Throughout the day sighs like "ooh, ho, ho", "aaaahh", "ooh, ooh" ebbed and flowed from across the ground as Rahul and Pant battled with Root's men. Emotions flowed on the field, too.
Rashid had bowled a ball into the rough behind Rahul's legs. Bairstow did not even move and Root, who went to retrieve the ball was anguished and waved his arms to express it. But Rashid finally started to get his length right for the first time in the match. That was also because he was being given to build a spell instead of the handful of overs previously.
The ripper that eventually burst through Rahul's defence was extraordinary. Delivering from the very edge of the popping crease, Rashid flighted the legbreak, on the edge of the foothole. Rahul turned to play it, opened himself up and the ball ripped past him to clip the top of off stump. He was bowled for the sixth time in the series, more than any batsman on both sides. Rashid deserved the wicket. Anderson had kept the batsmen quiet at the other end and now it was his turn to challenge the Indians and he did that.
Pant was talking to himself now to keep his head. But the pressure was too much and he slogged Rashid into the hands of Moeen at long-off. The Oval erupted. At 20 years old, Pant had created a contest in a matter of a session.
In the end, there was no grandstand finish. In the end, India did finish with the fate they had feared they would confront at the start of the day: 4-1.
However, Rahul and Pant lit up the contest with bravado that only Kohli, and Pujara on a couple of occasions, and his fast bowlers had shown this series. Rahul and Pant showed what desire, motivation, guts, the ability of playing to the situation, absorbing, sustaining and creating pressure can do - enliven the theatre of Test cricket. They made Anderson wait almost until the last ball of the day to enter history books. They made things that looked improbable happen.