This day should have been about Ajinkya Rahane’s magnificent assertion of his credentials against a team management that decided he should be benched in the first two Tests of their series against South Africa.
It should have been about Virat Kohli and his continuing quest to push the boundaries of batting excellence after a series in which the Indian batsmen have been challenged like never before – against top-class pace bowlers in conditions that aid them.
It should have been about Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the unsung hero of the current team, for whom being the best performer in the XI for one match is no guarantee of finding a place in the next. And who can come back despite that, and still deliver one match-turning moment after another.
It should have been about M Vijay rediscovering the Monk within. After a strange dalliance with deliveries well outside offstump – the ones who he didn’t care to give a second glance to earlier – he was back at his most patient, his most serene self.
All the headlines though, will focus on how play was called off 19 minutes before stumps were scheduled on Friday (January 26) because the umpires deemed the pitch might have become too dangerous with South Africa 17 for 1 chasing 241.
It should have been about all the cricketers, and about the Indian batting performance overall. South Africa’s bowling attack had Kagiso Rabada, fierce of pace and endless of stamina with bundles of skill. It had Vernon Philander, who seems to take it as a personal insult if he gives the batsman a centimetre of room. It had Morne Morkel, hostile and delivering the ball from a height that made playing him naturally uncomfortable. And it had Lungi Ngidi, a young tyro who could be a predator.
India’s batsmen faced up against these men, on a pitch that resembled a spitting cobra. It had fangs that would appear without warning and sting. And on this pitch, against this attack – they came through. These were the main contributors, but what of Parthiv Patel, sent in to open the innings, making 16 off 15 and not allowing the bowlers to settle into an early rhythm? What of Mohammed Shami, gleefully ransacking boundaries to deny South Africa an opening that seemed there for the taking?
India got to 247 all out, but rarely has the value of 247 in a Test match been as mismatched. For those who see only the scoreboard of this match later, they will not know of the courage and skill that went into making those runs. They will not know of how Vijay showed control beyond exemplary, how Kohli rose above the surface and situation for the second time in a match, and how both of them gave India ownership of a passage that could have been their undoing.
They will not know that Rahane, inexplicably left out of the first two Tests, walked out and decided that “If I perform here I will be a hero.” Rahane’s 48 was the highest score of India’s innings, and his runs came in just 68 balls. From the outset, when he walked out post lunch to join Kohli, he looked for scoring opportunities.
“I was visualising when I was sitting in the dressing room,” he would reveal later. “I was thinking what my approach was going to be because only survival was not the point on this wicket because we wanted to score runs. I was actually thinking from last night what are the important shots on this wicket, and that if I get aggressive in my batting, I could put South Africa on the back foot because they were dominating with their bowling. I was just thinking about going aggressive, if the ball is there to be hit, I will play my shot and that’s it. Vijay and Virat batted out the difficult part so it was easier for me.”
Given the context of the match, and the personal story of a mini-comeback after finding himself in the unfamiliar environs of outside the XI in a Test match, Rahane had some extra motivation heading into the match. “It’s definitely a very important innings for me. I was very motivated before this match. When you get an opportunity and then you find a pitch like this, your motivation level rises,” he held. “It was important for me to stay relaxed and not take any pressure when I went out to bat. And the situation was such, we were 100 for 4, I was visualising that if we can score 70-80 runs also from here, then it will be very difficult for them. And then to get 240 runs eventually was very good. But personally, I was really determined and motivated to do well. From all the pitches I’ve played on, I think this was the most challenging.”
After the first innings, Cheteshwar Pujara had described the pitch as one of the most challenging he has played on. Even the South Africans have conceded the difficulty of the conditions, where any ball with your name on it might be the next one.
Today should have been about Rahane’s redemption, Kohli’s class, Vijay’s serenity and Bhuvneshwar’s grit. That they were all reduced to being the side act was one of the gross injustices that cricket sometimes dishes out.