Ajinkya Rahane came into the Hyderabad Test averaging 26.07 in 2018. It is comfortably his worst year in Test cricket, but that wouldn't have been readily apparent watching him bat on Saturday. He got off the mark with a beautiful square drive for four and looked in immaculate control of nearly each of the 174 balls he faced.
The seven that ended up troubling him followed a template. They were on a length, quite a bit outside the off stump, he would throw his bat at them and nick off. This recently picked-up bad habit has been a major contributor to Rahane's sub-par returns. Since the tour of South Africa in January, he has routinely lost his wicket when fast bowlers have teased him to play away from the body.
On Saturday, this vulnerability in his batting was challenged only 32 times by the West Indian bowlers, who were otherwise quite exemplary, especially in coming back after conceding 43 runs off the first five overs. They got rid of Cheteshwar Pujara cheaply and Virat Kohli cheaply enough. India were still trailing by 149 with only Rishabh Pant and the allrounders left to bat. The match was in the balance. But Rahane just kept batting.
He wasn't really scoring runs. It didn't even seem like he wanted to. From a distance, it was as if all he cared about was reacquainting himself with those values that made him such an invaluable part of this line-up. Solidity.
It all began with him asking the umpire for a leg stump guard. Then he'd wander away, adjusting his gloves and clearing his mind. When absolutely ready, he'd take strike. The head was still, hovering somewhere over middle stump. His feet were still too; there was no trigger movement.
Finally the ball would arrive and he'd not so much play it as care for it. In the process, his strike-rate languished in the mid-20s for most of his stay, which probably has a role to play in his falling into the outside-off-stump trap. It nearly happened when Jason Holder had him driving on the up in the 49th over but the edge was thick enough to beat the gully fielder. With only two fifties in 14 innings, Rahane needed time in the middle and he got it. He should get a lot more of it on Sunday too, but not everyone was so lucky.
KL Rahul stood there staring at a broken set of stumps. Another broken set of stumps. He spent most of his time at the crease simply trying to belong. But somehow, he just couldn't. There was nothing untoward about the pitch. That much was clear by the cricket at the other end, where Prithvi Shaw seemed like he could score runs batting upside down.
And yet, with seven overs to go for lunch, Rahul guided a ball that looked rather lost outside the off stump onto his middle stump and left for the dressing room. He was 4 off 25. His partner was 42 off 30. The extras were 15.
That's disheartening. Especially when you've hit hundreds of balls in the nets, had lengthy throwdown sessions with the coaching staff and received a ringing endorsement of his potential. But try as he might, he just can't feel comfortable when he's out in the middle playing a Test match. If he were one of us, he'd be waking up before the alarm, putting on his Monday best, gulping down a perfectly balanced breakfast, stepping out the door and getting hit by bird droppings.
In this innings, Rahul edged or missed six out of the 25 deliveries he faced. By nature, he doesn't really move his feet too much, but when in form, his ability to read the ball and transfer his weight appropriately are the very reason he looks so good; the very reason that his shots seem so crisp. Now, at a point in his career where 42% of his dismissals have been bowled or lbw, he just looks out of place.
The batting coach Sanjay Bangar mounted a strong defence of the opener at the end of play. "Whatever runs he's scored for the Indian team, his contributions have come overseas and his contributions even in India have come in tougher times, You remember the series against Australia which probably was the most hard fought series in the domestic calendar in the last couple of years, he was very very consistent. So I think from a team management point of view, we will back players who are capable of winning matches and who are going to be impact players for us and who can change the course of a match."
But Bangar admitted there was a problem that needed solving. "Rahul has had some issues with the ball coming into him and he's working on it very hard. But what we feel is the batsman thinks a lot about the away-going ball. At times he forgets to concentrate on the straighter ball which pitch generally in the line of the stumps. Those are the things that we're working on. And I think if he gets past the 15-20 run mark because even in the previous game he got out pretty early and even in this game he got to play a few balls… If those dismissals happen once he's past 20 or 25, then it's a more serious cause of concern.
"I don't think there's too much of a technical fault. But maybe once he gets past those initial phases and he expects the ball to be pitched somewhere in line with the stumps [he'll be alright]."