Ajinkya Rahane missed out on his 10th century but he weathered the tough conditions to revive India after the top order fell cheaply on day 1 of the first Test against West Indies in North Sound, Antigua. (Image credit: Rajasthan Royals Twitter)
Ajinkya Rahane was under pressure before he came out to bat in the Antigua Test. The Mumbai right-hander had not scored a Test century since the SSC Test against Sri Lanka in 2017. In the last two years, his averages have been 34.62 and 30.66. Even in the warm-up game, Rahane's performances raised questions and he was at the crossroads of his career. In Antigua, West Indies had ripped out Cheteshwar Pujara, Mayank Agarwal and Virat Kohli. With the new Dukes Ball and on an Antigua pitch assisting the likes of Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel and Jason Holder, it was tough going.
When Rahane had managed just one run off 30 balls, there was a sense that he was getting bogged down and it would only be a matter of time before he was dismissed for another cheap score. At that point in time, Rahane decided to hang in and scrap rather than counterattack and fall cheaply. In the process of consuming 30 balls for one run, Rahane ensured that the early assistance for the bowlers from the wicket would go away. With the new ball losing its shine, it would be a bit easy for stroke-making. The nature of the wicket at North Sound did not allow flmaboyant strokeplay. It is in this broader picture that the 68-run and 82-run stand with KL Rahul and Hanuma Vihari which helped India stage a revival.
As Test matches go, there are still four days remaining. However, in the context of the conditions, Rahane's knock has great value and has once again brought to the fore the art of scrapping through in a tough situation. It is this greatly under-appreciated art which has helped India win Test matches overseas in the recent past.
Rewind to Melbourne 2018. On a pitch which had some early assistance, Hanuma Vihari consumed 66 balls for eight runs. The statistics, at first sight, will tell you that it was a struggle for Vihari. What the statistics do not reveal is that Vihari and Mayank Agarwal consumed 18.5 overs and negated the threat of the new ball. In Australia, the blueprint for success for overseas batsmen was to survive the new Kookaburra on a fresh pitch. Vihari's eight was valuable as it allowed Agarwal to notch up his maiden fifty, Pujara his second ton in Australia and Kohli to score 82. It was this weathering of the new ball which was a significant factor in India winning in Melbourne.
One has to go back even further to Johannesburg 2018. Pujara, who was in wretched form heading into the match, took over 50 balls to get off the mark. The right-hander managed 50 runs off 179 balls. In terms of strike-rate, it was a disaster. In terms of batting fluency, it missed the mark. But, Test cricket demands application and scrapping on a tough wicket and the Wanderers was a difficult deck for batsmen on that day. Pujara and Kohli, along with Bhuvneshwar Kumar were the only players to get into double figures as India managed 187.
Pujara's knock allowed Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar to bowl with their tail up and India managed a consolation win in Johannesburg.
The wins in Johannesburg and Melbourne highlighted the value of a hard scrap for batsmen in Tests, which is never visually appealing but vital to a team's fortune. After the end of the day, Rahane's comment that he was not sad on missing his century adds more weight that a solid, gritty fifty is more valuable when it comes to determining the team's fortunes. One has to just look at the broader conditions and situation to determine whether the knock is worth it's weight in gold.