During the pre-match presser leading into the Boxing Day Test, Ajinkya Rahane was asked if he would ping Virat Kohli discussion strategies and asking for tips. As disrespectful as the question is for any human, let alone a stand-in captain, Rahane patiently replied, as quoted by ESPNCricinfo, "I don't want to disturb him now because obviously, this time is really special."
This is not the first time that Rahane's capabilities have been questioned. In terms of captaincy, Rahane has a 100 per cent record, albeit from just two games, but in his debut in the role, he led the Indian side to a win in the series decider in Dharamsala in 2017 against Australia. So impressive was he with his captaincy that former Aussie cricketer Ian Chappell was still in praise of his aggressive stint from that game before the start of this year's contest. But the question, this time, was probably was asked pertaining to his fall in batting standards.
Having made his debut in 2013, Rahane quickly cemented his spot in the Indian Test line-up with the unique ability to master SENA conditions, a feat rarely seen in Indian cricket. In his first 18 Tests, 17 were away from home where he averaged 46.37 with four centuries which were scored in New Zealand, England, Australia, and Sri Lanka. He then grew into an indispensable player in the setup with a stellar home season in 2015 and 2016 where he scored three centuries.
But somewhere at the start of 2017, Rahane tailed off, managing just 325 runs in the eight home Tests he played that year. He was eventually dropped in the South Africa Test series with India opting Rohit Sharma ahead of him for the first two games before he was recalled for the Johannesburg game where he scored a gritty 48 on a demonic track to help India with a consolation win. But since then, his batting was merely a shadow of himself, despite most of his innings happening on overseas soil where he has excelled the most in his career. Since 2018, Rahane has averaged 33.39 in 15 Tests on overseas soil with just one century which was scored against West Indies in North Sound in 2019. In SENA nations, his average during that period was 26.55 in 13 games, a significant drop from his earlier average of 48.59.
Besides his batting concerns, Rahane had an even bigger task at hand - pulling out India from the horrors of Adelaide in the absence of three of their frontline players - Kohli, Mohammed Shami, and Ishant Sharma. As spectacular as the feeling might have been for any player to have gotten the opportunity to lead India in Australia, Rahane's position was not at all enviable.
But 48 hours hence that presser, the same Rahane, calm and composed as ever, stands at the helm as India have built an 82-run lead at the MCG.
On day 1 of the MCG game, Rahane chalked out a bowling pattern that most would have evaded in foreign conditions. He started with Jasprit Bumrah and Umesh Yadav as the new-ball pair with the former removing Joe Burns but introduced R Ashwin with early morning moisture and the pitch aiding spin. Ashwin removed Matthew Wade and Steve Smith in quick succession to send Australia three down. Rahane then brought back Bumrah from the other end to tighten the pressure on the Aussies. Rahane aggressive captaincy left Australia wounded early at the MCG where captain Tim Paine happily opted to bat.
Rahane did err with his strategy after lunch when he introduced debutant Mohammed Siraj into the attack in the first over after the break, allowing the Aussie pair of Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head to settle in. While Ashwin continued to trouble the two, Rahane brought back Bumrah who removed Head before Siraj made further inroads with dismissals of Labuschagne and Cameron Green. India folded Australia for 195, their lowest first-innings total in the Boxing Day game since 2010. And Rahane was applauded for his captaincy choices for bowling and backing them enough.
Rahane absorbed the initial pressure from the morning session before he was tested by Nathan Lyon, the bowler who has dismissed him nine times in Test cricket. Bowling on the same line as Ashwin, between middle and leg, Lyon, who relied more on the bounce off the track, found considerable spin that troubled both Rahane and Hanuma Vihari. The latter fell to Lyon's spin trap, but Rahane survived. India, however, were still trailing, leaving Australia with still a big hope of turning things around.
The run rate increased with Rishabh Pant's presence in the middle who whacked Cummins for 12 runs in a single over to reach a run-a-ball 24. The aggressive batting helped Rahane loosen his arms and that helped India inch closer to the total of 195. They eventually skipped over and built on the lead riding on yet another patient partnership, of hundred runs, between Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja.
Rahane, by the end of the day, had three reprise in the innings - on 57, 73, and in the final over of the day - was even received treatment for a discomfort he faced with his back. But the 104, still unbeaten, will forever stand as one of his finest knocks and he will now look to build on the score when day 3 resumes on Monday, which already seems to stand as the sole difference between the two sides.