Punam Raut has been around for a long time. Long enough to have played three ODI World Cups and four T20 World Cups. Long enough to have opened 54 times for India and batted first-drop on 15 occasions in 71 ODIs. And long enough to have been outperformed by the younger, quick-hitting frontline India batters and acquiring the status of being too slow for T20Is and, not until the second match of the ongoing ODI series against South Africa, perhaps for the ODI format, too.
In an international career now spanning nearly 12 years, Raut, 31, has often found herself needing to prove her style of play is in sync with the evolving nature of the women's game.
Heading into the series against South Africa, Raut's career strike rate was 56.96. Her 29-ball 10 in the series opener, which India lost by eight wickets, didn't do her reputation of a slow accumulator any good. In the second ODI, too, her scoring was found wanting for pace: Raut crawled to just seven runs in the first 31 balls of her innings, without any boundaries. By then, her batting partner, opener Smriti Mandhana, had waltzed to 32 off 33, with three sixes and two fours.
The scratchy start notwithstanding, Raut turned a corner in that game. Finishing on an unbeaten 89-ball 62, her unbroken second-wicket 138-run stand with Mandhana paved the way for India's series-levelling nine-wicket victory. Her strike rate, 69.66 in the second ODI, improved to 71.30 and 84.55 in the next two matches as she compiled three straight 50-plus scores, the third of those, on Sunday, an unbeaten 104 off 123. In doing so, Raut became the first Indian batter to make an ODI hundred at home since 2014.
"Under my coach in Mumbai, I worked on my back-foot shots and strike rotation. It was about getting used to things by batting a lot. I worked on the technical flaws in my game. The runs are coming now and it's due to the hard work I put in during the lockdown"- Punam Raut
Raut's century in the fourth ODI in Lucknow proved far from adequate for the hosts to save the five-match series - South Africa mowed down the 267 target, pulling off their highest chase. Her new-found consistency at the top, though, is likely to bode well for India as their think-tank draws up combinations potent enough to challenge the best leading up to the 2022 World Cup.
"I don't think too much about strike rate. I focus on my contribution to the team," Raut said after the fourth ODI when asked if she heeds any talk around her strike rate. "As for making comebacks [as I have in the past], it is important to stay mentally strong. There are people who tell me that my strike rate is low, but I don't let it worry me. I keep working on my game."
Returns on the field, and off it, since the 2017 World Cup have been a mixed bag for Raut. On the back of her impressive run in that global tournament, where India finished runners-up, she inked a three-year bat sponsorship deal with a leading automobile brand that currently has Mandhana and R Ashwin on their roster among India cricketers. She made it to the new central contracts' list in 2018, getting a Grade-C retainer. Accolades from her domestic team, Railways, and private organisations, too, followed, with a cricket-coaching centre - the Punam Raut Cricket Academy - at the Poinsur Gymkhana in Mumbai's Kandivali West also taking on her name.
Fortunes on the field, though, were hardly as favourable. In her 14 innings since the 2017 World Cup and before the start of the ongoing series against South Africa, Raut made 40 or more only three times. Owing to a 47-ball 19 and 37-ball 20 in the first two ODIs in South Africa in February 2018, in what was India's first assignment since the World Cup, she lost her place to Mona Meshram. When India turned out for their next assignment, a home series against Australia in Vadodara, Raut was dropped from the XI after the first two matches, her 50-ball 37 and 61-ball 27 as an opener not proving good enough.
That same year, Raut was overlooked for a place in the ODI squad for the home series against England as India began trying out a teenaged Jemimah Rodrigues as an opener, with a view to up India's scoring rate at the top. In the next set of opportunities that came Raut's way to make a top-order spot in the ODI side her own, during the 2018 tour of Sri Lanka, a 41-ball 24 and a 15-ball 3 is all she could collect. Rodrigues replaced her again and, by dint of her fearless style of play, emerged the favoured opening partner to Mandhana during the 2019 tour of New Zealand under new coach WV Raman.
Over the next ten months, India played another three bilateral ODI series, including two at home. The first of those, against England, saw Raut return to the XI in the second ODI. Raut made 32 from No. 3 in that game, stitching together a vital fifty stand with captain Mithali Raj in a small chase. A first fifty, 56 off 97 balls, since the 2017 World Cup final followed in the third ODI. India lost the game, but Raut's half-century won her some breathing room.
Since then, India have used her at one-down, with Raj largely slotting herself in at No. 4. Leading up to the ongoing South Africa series, Raut's noteworthy contributions since the home assignment against England had been a 92-ball 65 and a 128-ball 77 against South Africa at home and West Indies away respectively. So the two straight fifties against South Africa ahead of Sunday had already been a marked improvement for Raut.
"The Covid-19-enforced lockdown helped me a lot to work on my game," she said after Sunday's game. "Under my [personal] coach in Mumbai, I worked on my back-foot shots and strike rotation. It was about getting used to things by batting a lot. I worked on the technical flaws in my game. The runs are coming now and it's due to the hard work I put in during the lockdown."
The hundred on Sunday and the celebratory kiss of the Ekana turf that followed may not have been much about having to prove a point to the world. For Raut, who doesn't have a bat sponsor at the moment, it might have just been relief that she is making the most of the precious, elusive form she has found in this series.
"The hundred was very valuable," she said, having steered India to their highest total at home since the 2013 World Cup. "A century is special for every batter. I wanted to convert my good form into three figures. I like this ground and this pitch. This is a special hundred as it has come after a long time."
And if her newly acquired consistency is anything to go by, the sight of a sponsor-less bat might also be a thing of the past soon.
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha