Rahul’s career-best 158 arms India with strong lead
Flawless innings are fairly rare in Test cricket. After all, the bowler gets to dictate some of the terms too. KL Rahul listened to them patiently, respected them when they made good points but did not cede his upper hand. His career-best 158 thrust India into the lead.
At the other end was Cheteshwar Pujara, who spent a full hour running away from making runs. He was 18 off 57 overnight and stayed on 18 until he faced his 92nd ball of the match. Much was made of his run-out after lunch. Facing 159 balls and being dismissed in that fashion evokes critique but there were mitigating circumstances.
Runs and records awaited anyone willing to show a little application on this Sabina Park pitch. But like a grandparent doting on their favourite grandkid in the middle of a party, it did embarrass them on the odd occasion. Like when Pujara nudged a short delivery from Jason Holder into the leg side. He meant for it to go a lot finer, but the ball had come onto the bat slower than expected and went off it in the same way, allowing Roston Chase who was in front of square, to cut across and throw the stumps down.
The third umpire was called on, but Pujara, who was face-down on the ground at the non-strikers’ end, knew all his hard work had come undone by one dreadful mistake. He was four short of fifty.
Meanwhile, Rahul kept cruising. He had driven extremely well and by now wasn’t afraid to extend the arms and hit over the top. A good IPL – whether it makes one ready for international cricket – certainly does wonders to his confidence. Rahul had outshone Chris Gayle in the last season and his attacking game was on point in Kingston.
West Indies, it seemed, were a mirror image. There was no ambition. They did not take the new ball when it was available and instead fed a new batsman with spin. Considering that new batsman was Virat Kohli, who is susceptible to the seamers outside the off stump, it was quite baffling. With very little resistance, a ninth – out of 12 – Indian partnership crossed fifty in this series.
Things changed after tea. West Indies took the new ball and put it in Shannon Gabriel’s hands. With him coming back from an ankle injury, it seemed like his team was perennially juggling chances of victory with those of him going out of commission again. Hamstring trouble for Miguel Cummins complicated matters further; the debutant was the only one to consistently aim at the stumps. Ask Pujara, who was beaten on the inside edge, outside edge and rapped on his top hand.
Gabriel had had nine overs’ downtime when the new ball had become available, but the additional respite seemed to have helped since he took out Rahul and troubled Kohli too. The India captain had been perturbed by outswingers – 8 off 33 at one point – and while his guard was up for that, he couldn’t prevent an inswinger thudding into the pads. Height saved him in umpire Aleem Dar’s judgment.
West Indies got Kohli and R Ashwin in the final hour of play but Ajinkya Rahane took the lead past 150.
Things were better in the morning. There weren’t many runs scored – 59 in 26 overs; there weren’t many fans around – sad for a Sunday; there were no wickets but there was a contest.
With clear skies welcoming the players on the second day, the likelihood of the ball seaming about had reduced. It was time to go back to camping just outside off stump for as long as it took to spot the rare, flirty Indian outside edge. Gabriel found one in his second over, but it didn’t carry to second slip. Darren Bravo, at first, stomped his foot. Pujara simply resumed batting.
Rahul’s scariest moment came when the length was much shorter, a 144 kph delivery that seamed in at his ribs. Rahul assumed the line was a lot wider and had committed into a cut shot and only barely avoided being caught behind. Gabriel was the aggrieved bowler, and fit the profile too, with a look that loosely translated to “where are my *$&#^ wickets?” His first spell was five overs – the longest he has bowled on the trot in this series – and gave away only three runs.
The last time India played in Jamaica a Rahul scored a century. So it was again when this Rahul came down the track and smacked the offspin of Chase into the stands at long-on. It was a shot definitive of the knock, showing how the batsman had read the threat of the ball early and how firm he was with his footwork. The only thing it didn’t make clear was how effective he had been in keeping the good ones out. A delighted fist-pump, an authoritative raise of his bat and a hug from M Vijay, who came out with drinks, were part of the celebrations.
Coming into the Jamaica Test, Rahul’s top five scores in descending order read: 110, 108, 16, 7, 5. Symptoms of a good player, but a nervous starter. So even with the 75 runs he had overnight, there were questions that needed answering. West Indies had a set plan at the start – the extra pace of Gabriel allied to Holder’s wide-outside-off lines to restrict run flow and create pressure. An anxious batsman could have been led into a mistake, but Rahul was careful. And decisive too – when he went back, he went right back.
When he went forward, he was more or less meeting the ball on the half-volley. Not since Mohammad Azharuddin in 1984-85 had an India batsman converted his first three fifties into hundreds.
Rahul is working towards making himself un-droppable. Vijay, currently injured, Kohli and Rahane are India’s best Test batsmen. Shikhar Dhawan has shown an improved judgement outside his off stump, an area he had previously struggled with. Pujara hits big hundreds, his inability to do so on Sunday hurt him. Will it hurt his career too? One of them can’t make an Indian XI with five bowlers. (ESPNCricinfo)
Photo caption: Opener KL Rahul scores off-side runs on Sunday