Sun, 26 May 2019

Rahane and Pant make statements by playing to strengths

ESPNCricInfo
23 Apr 2019, 16:42 GMT+10

8:52 PM ET

He was cramping. The left forearm was losing strength on an incredibly hot evening. Thirty-six degrees, dry heat, at 9.30pm. But Ajinkya Rahane wasn't in the mood to give up. Twice the substitute fielder tried to run in with a drink, twice the umpire objected and twice Rahane was lost in his own routines.

He was fixated on adjusting his helmet and ensuring the right thumb sat properly inside the right glove compartment. Then he examined his bat grip and looked suspiciously at the toe-end as he looked to accelerate. He was in his batting zone. You could've displayed the Game of Thrones finale spoiler on the giant screen and he wouldn't have noticed. He was losing fluids, but replenishing his thirst with runs.

The fatigue wasn't going to stop him from making a statement though. When he got to his century, the determination was writ large. He pointed to the dressing room, not once but twice, and quietly pumped his fists. The typical Rahane smile was missing though. Few in his position would have.

ALSO READ: Talking points: Rahane's dream T20 innings

In the past week he's been dealt a few blows. He's been told 'sorry, but you're not in our World Cup plans', given a message that his captaincy wasn't working for Rajasthan Royals and that he had to hand the job back to his predecessor.

This could've been upsetting and possibly a huge dent on the ego. But then, Rahane isn't Virat Kohli, whose batting has somewhat covered up for a string of ordinary results. The only way Rahane could have escaped the ignominy of being left out was if he scored runs. That could've happened only if he rid himself of all the self-doubts and brought the fun back into his batting.

In his first outing after losing the job, he failed. On Monday, he ran Sanju Samson out for a diamond duck, a batsman who could've eased the pressure on Rahane with his silken touch. Now, Rahane was properly under the pump and yet he came out and stuck to an old clich of his: "follow the process", which essentially in Rahane's book means relying on his timing and not trying to bat like Chris Gayle. His first boundary on the up through extra cover off Ishant Sharma was signature Rahane. It set the tone.

Up until then, each time he'd started well, he'd invariably lose rhythm trying to hoick and heave his way in as the ball got softer. Here, he sustained momentum right through. He raised the half-century off 32 balls and then reached his second T20 hundred off the next 26 balls. It had come at the same pace as Kohli's earlier in the season, much quicker than KL Rahul's, the other two Indian centurions.

He was lucky, too, when Ishant put down a sitter at short fine leg early in his innings, but after that he was batting with the freedom and authority he's rarely displayed in recent times. He flat-batted the tournament's best bowler Kagiso Rabada over his head, laced cover drives on the up for fun, as if he was taking his Audi out for a spin in Mumbai's Eastern Express Highway, and even made the scoops and paddles off the fast bowlers look ridiculously easy.

For a neutral in Jaipur, this was just a teaser, because the thrill was yet to come. Where Rahane had shown an extra gear to his batting and the ability to innovate at times, Rishabh Pant was finishing the game off for his team, fighting his way back into form after a brief lull where his shot selection earned a fair bit of criticism.

Playing on two-paced Feroz Shah Kotla pitches had frustrated the Delhi Capitals batsmen no end. Here at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium, on a surface that played far better than it looked, Pant was like a kid who had ditched the homework for his Playstation the moment his parents left the house.

Relying on his muscle, the hand-eye coordination, playing without the fear of the ball holding up and doing those little tricks, he brought up a brutal half-century, like he did in a winning cause at the Wankhede, where anything he hit kept sailing away. As a fielder, you had to sit and pray that he didn't hit it towards you, because he hit them so hard.

The message was clear. Pant was looking to throw the bowlers off gear, making a mockery of tight situations by bringing out his audacity. Yet, as the game veered towards the close, his astute awareness about whom to target and when to back off stood out.

Jofra Archer was bowling the 19th. He likes to hit the hard lengths or go for the yorkers. Pant waited patiently for five deliveries and then, with one ball left, decided to show his muscle and connected cleanly over long-on, with Capitals needing 13 off 7 balls.

He wasn't second-guessing, he was instinctively reacting to the ball. Seeing it, hitting it. Here he had paced his innings well, picking his spots, picking which bowler to target and then clinically bringing the target down, much like the man who he idolises - MS Dhoni - had done a day earlier in Bengaluru.

You couldn't help but think of what could've been had these two special knocks come a fortnight earlier.

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