As most Test wins are, the three overseas ones for India in 2018 have been fashioned by their bowlers, but in all three of those wins, all three of India's most established batsmen have made telling contributions. In Johannesburg, Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara gave India the first-innings score followed by third-innings target-setting knocks from Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. In Nottingham, Kohli and Rahane scored the first-innings runs, and Kohli and Pujara put things past England in the second innings. In Adelaide, Pujara was the glue in both innings, and there were meaningful contributions from both Kohli and Rahane in the second innings.
Out of the three, Rahane still remains under pressure. Some of it is down to the missing centuries. Kohli has scored three, Pujara two, in overseas Tests this year, but Rahane has now gone 23 Test innings without a hundred. Kohli has been the undisputed best for India this year, Pujara's average is now nudging 40, but Rahane languishes in the early 30s. It is believed being unsettled because of that omission in South Africa earlier this year, and also being consumed by limited-overs ambitions, has had an effect on his batting. One of the casualties is the loss of an effortless organic tempo of an innings. The 2014 Rahane knew just what pace to play at; nothing seemed forced. Now his attack and his defence both seem predetermined.
However, there is support from where it matters the most. At the start of the year, Rahane's axing was a foregone conclusion for captain Kohli, who was surprised people questioned his decision. By the end of the year, Kohli is firmly in Rahane's corner.
"Look every batsman every now and then has to work on his game if something is not going right but you can never take away the player totally. As I said in the past many times, both technically and temperament wise they are both solid Test players," Kohli said of Pujara and Rahane after the Adelaide win.
"I think Ajinkya batted superbly as well," Kohli said after claiming Pujara was the difference between the two sides at Adelaide Oval. "So fearless and positive, and that's his game and that's his template; taking their bowlers on and not being intimidated. He has confidence in his own space, which I think is the most important thing for him. And the fact that he could do it in the first game, we have seen him build on it in Australia in the past. If he can bat like that every Test match, I think, he certainly can take away the game from the opposition and set the game up in a session. That's how good he is when he is on a roll."
However, Rahane's troubles against Nathan Lyon continue. Not long ago, he and Pujara scored half-centuries that were worth hundreds in the low-scoring Test in Bengaluru to get the better of Lyon, but Rahane is back to not trusting his defence against the offspin from the rough. A lot of Rahane's cricket since his last century has been played in pace-friendly conditions, but six of these 23 dismissals have come against offspin. He tried to hit out in the first innings, but perished against pace. And even after getting set, under no pressure from the match situation as the batting approach of the lower order suggested, Rahane still felt the need to play a reverse sweep to tackle Lyon, who refused to move out of the rough. That brought about a dismissal in the 70s when it was probably time to get a personal milestone to earn himself some breathing space. That didn't leave batting coach Sanjay Bangar too impressed.
"He scored runs against West Indies, and even in England he had scores in the third, fourth and fifth Tests," Bangar said of Rahane. "It's just that the hundred has been elusive, the big knock which we are all expecting and which he is also working hard towards, is not coming. But it is not about individual landmarks but whenever he has played that innings, it is the quality he possesses, he generally puts the team in a very good position."
Since the start of 2014, Rahane never had a year without a Test century. Now he is two matches away from going one-and-a-half years without one. And at least after the South Africa tour, he has been given a consistent run. India will dearly love for him to correct that stat, or at least once again get close to doing so.