At this end of his 200th and final Test, Sachin Tendulkar didn’t just address the thousands that had gathered to bid him a tearful farewell at the Wankhede Stadium. He spoke to each of his teammates, most of who had grown up wanting to emulate his feats. One of those he spoke to was Ajinkya Rahane, who wasn’t part of the Test XI at the time.
On debut in Delhi a few months earlier, Rahane had appeared nervous and a little lost. He gloved one to backward short leg in the first innings and then perished to an ugly heave in the second. It was flustered batsmanship, completely at odds with the composure that he had shown across several seasons of domestic cricket, during which he had averaged nearly 60.
One of the things Tendukar told him was to go on and accomplish all that he never could. On Thursday (July 17), Rahane emphatically ticked one of those boxes, scoring a Test hundred at Lord’s. Coming in with India in trouble at 86 for 3, he showed both skill and nous on a pitch where batting was never easy. Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli had both been unable to build on starts and with the innings in disarray at 145 for 7, Rahane stepped up to play the sort of innings that few who watched it will ever forget.
Last December in Durban, India lost a Test series because they failed to bat out most of the final day’s play. Rahane was one of those least culpable, showing tremendous character on his way to scoring 96 against the best attack in the world. After that effort, Tendulkar spoke to him again, suggesting that maybe now, he knew the value of a Test match hundred.
Two matches later, in Wellington, he scored his first. At Lord’s, it wasn’t just the runs he made that caught the eye. Most of them came in the company of the tail, with England well on top and glimpsing a wrap inside three sessions. “Every hundred is special, be it at Wellington or at Lord’s, but yes it is special to do this at Lord’s,” said Rahane after the day’s play. “I also want to thank the top order – Vijay, Pujara, and Kohli – who played through a crucial phase. Watching them bat, I gained confidence.”
Rahane has always had a compact technique and he needed every bit of the skill at his disposal to negotiate the bowling on a well-grassed pitch where few batsmen could settle. “I was thinking ‘play as close as possible’,” he said. “After 25 or 35 runs, I took my chances.”
By then, he had Bhuvneshwar Kumar for company. At Nottingham, Bhuvneshwar had shown that he takes his batting very seriously. It was no different here. Ben Stokes, the England allrounder, complained later of the luck that he had – courtesy edges that didn’t go to hand – but once again, he batted with the poise of a veteran.
Rahane, who added 90 with him at nearly four an over, certainly saw it that way. “From the non-striker’s end, I was learning from him,” he said. “I asked Bhuvi if I could take a single and he said he is comfortable. He is such a confident guy now and I completely trust him.”
Rahane stroked some beautiful drives, but was equally at ease dismissing the short ball in front of square. He was also unafraid to hit the ball in the air and over the top. Having had considerable success opening the batting for Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League, he is no stranger to those methods. Against bowlers who pitched too short for most of the day, those tactics worked beautifully.
“This wicket was different, till the end the ball was doing something,” said Rahane, who can’t have seen too many surfaces of this nature in domestic cricket. “I just wanted to be myself and play my game.” It took him 101 balls to get to his half-century. After that, he raced to three figures. When the ball was pitched up, he drove with élan. When it was too short, he dismissed it either side of square leg. The game sense he showed was remarkable.
At 26, he is no longer a prodigy from whom much is expected. He has had to bide his time and be patient. Tendulkar was thrust into the spotlight so soon that he had little time to be afflicted by self-doubt. With Rahane and even Rohit Sharma, who have spent so long waiting for a chance, there was always the fear that it would eat away at them.
Instead, Rahane seems to have derived inspiration from another for whom that first Test cap didn’t come easy. “I was watching videos of Michael Hussey, who used to bat a lot with tail-enders,” he said. “Even Virat, who in Australia [2011-12] batted with the tail. Dhoni bhai too has batted a lot with the tail. I am learning from them.”
“He looked the embodiment of India’s famous opener, Gavaskar, and indeed was wearing a pair of his pads,” says the Wisden Almanack of a long-ago Test. “While he displayed a full repertoire of strokes in compiling his maiden Test hundred, most remarkable were his off-side shots from the back foot. Though only 5ft 5in tall, he was still able to control without difficulty short deliveries from the English paceman.”
Tendulkar’s first hundred in England, at Old Trafford in 1990, saved India a Test they appeared certain to lose. Rahane, the master’s willing apprentice, has allowed his team to dream of even greater things.