Abhishek Purohit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
The way he batted against South Africa at the MCG could be the boost Ajinkya Rahane needed to develop confidence in his own style alongside the power-hitters in India's ODI middle order. A World Cup match against a top-quality attack in front of nearly 90,000 people. As big an occasion and platform as any.
Rahane had walked in at No. 7 in the last over of India's innings against Pakistan in their World Cup opener at Adelaide Oval. He backed away to his first ball, swung, missed, and was bowled.
On that day, India lost their second wicket on 163 in the 30th over, but Suresh Raina was sent instead of Rahane. It may partly have been to continue the left-right combination with Virat Kohli after Shikhar Dhawan's departure, but it was also an indication that the team management rated Raina's acceleration skills over Rahane's. Raina did no harm to that assessment with a crucial 74 off 56.
Past numbers were not in favour of Rahane. Only five times in 46 previous ODI innings had he managed a strike-rate of 100 or more. None of those innings had come in the middle order. In 12 innings at No. 3 or 4 before the World Cup, Rahane had managed an average of 23.33 and a strike-rate of 70.17. With the batting Powerplay approaching, those numbers did not generate confidence that Rahane could hit the big shots regularly in a World Cup match against Pakistan.
Ahead of the second group match against South Africa, the team management had a discussion with Rahane. India were in a similar situation with the score on 136 in the 28th over when the second wicket fell. Right-hander Rahane replaced right-hander Kohli this time. Showcasing a side of his one-day game that has rarely been seen before, Rahane pulverized 79 off 60, the strike-rate of 131.66 his highest till date.
What stood out was his instinctive boundary-hitting. There would be a few dots, and then suddenly, a cracking cover drive that sped past the man in the circle and the one placed wide of the sweeper. More dots, and a smooth, straight lift against bowlers of the pace of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.
Rahane cannot do the swipe over midwicket like Raina thrives on. He does not have the same power at his disposal as Dhawan and Kohli. He cannot hit the big, towering sixes deep into the stands with the ease of a Rohit Sharma. But as he has often shown in the IPL, his timing can be destructive when he finds it. MS Dhoni said that Rahane had been told to rely on that same natural ability ahead of the South Africa match.
"We said back your strength, use your timing because that's really your strength," Dhoni said. "If you look to give too much power you lose shape and you're not allowed to score freely. Especially in this game I thought he batted really well. He backed his natural instinct, his timing. I was very happy with his performance."
In a short ODI career in the middle order, Rahane has seemed unsure and struggled at times to find the balance between defence and attack. He showed signs of comfort at the top of the order with rapid centuries against England and Sri Lanka last year, but Rohit's second ODI double-century followed by a big hundred against Australia at the MCG pushed Rahane back to the middle order.
In a long wait on the bench before his Test career began, and at No. 5 or 6 later, Rahane has displayed patience and adaptability. That has eventually translated into some memorable hundreds already, and the MCG innings showed he is capable of producing similar performances irrespective of batting position in ODIs too. Dhoni appreciated Rahane's flexibility, including on the field, as he spoke about his growth.
"Irrespective of the format, he has really improved. He's definitely one of the individuals who is not really rigid. He's quite open to ideas. He's quite open to try new things, and once he tries it out, he gives you a good response as to whether it's working or not working for him.
"He's not someone who owns a position in the sense he's not somebody who wants to field at covers. Wherever there is opportunity he's willing to go there, whether it's boundaries, covers, leg slip, anywhere."
He says yes to everything, a smiling Dhoni said of Rahane in the end. If you can back that up by lofting Steyn for a straight six, a captain won't mind having more such Yes-men.