Resilient Rahane piles on pain for exasperated Australian counterpart

This is becoming a captains’ series. Only the captains have scored meaningful half-centuries so far. The teams’ fortunes have been reflected precisely by their leaders’.

Tim Paine spent Sunday in the field. Strike one for India. He spent most of the day watching Ajinkya Rahane. Strike two.

One that got away: Captain Tim Paine spills a chance during a frustrating day for the Australian team.Credit:Getty

Paine’s day started with a mistake. First ball, he called for a decision review for an edge that neither the bowler nor the slips cordon believed in. It wouldn’t be surprising, given the praise heaped onto his shoulders since Adelaide, for Paine to have believed he could bend reality to his will.

With only 195 runs to defend, Paine had no margin for error. He did not lack for effort; to the contrary, any glimpse of Paine throughout Sunday’s three humid sessions was a snapshot of someone trying so hard it was hurting. Nine balls into the day, Shubman Gill inside-edged Josh Hazlewood. So sure were the Australian slips that Paine had taken the catch, they were already running towards the bowler celebrating when their skipper, in exasperation after grassing the difficult chance, flung the ball away. It hadn’t crossed their mind that Paine could err.

Edges failed to carry or ran through slips. There were six plays and misses in the first half-hour. Expert commentary was rumbling against Paine’s delay in giving the ball to Mitchell Starc or Nathan Lyon. Habituated to luck running his way since Adelaide, Paine began to get a vexed and hexed look about him.

Then, perhaps, a turn: Paine pouched two catches off Cummins, a straightforward one off Gill and a diving right-hander to remove Cheteshwar Pujara. Instantly, the frown turned upside-down.

But this moment, which seemed to herald an Australian revival, instead brought out India’s talisman. Rahane might be seen as a mere locum for Virat Kohli, but the Indian team have rallied in Melbourne like a democracy emerging from years of dictatorship. Smart plans had paid off in the field. When Ravi Ashwin had a catch taken at leg-slip, he rejoiced with Rahane as if they were liberated from more than just the threat of Steve Smith.

In Adelaide, Rahane had suffered two days of queasiness after running out Kohli on the first evening. In Melbourne he recovered his composure and, in his back-office way, the appearance of command. Consultation works.

One feature of this series had been the inability of the batsmen on both teams to find a gear between first and fifth. Most had been stuck in the former. A couple had skipped straight to the latter but hadn’t lasted long. Rahane’s century was a steady acceleration at Test cricket tempo, working through each of the gears in turn.

Attrition can go both ways. Sometimes it wears out the sandpaper, sometimes the wood (or in Australia’s one-time case, the ball). Until Rahane’s arrival, the batsmen had been striving to wear the bowlers down but found themselves worn out first. Rahane was the first batsman to physically and mentally outlast an attack. His first three hours were cricketing ju-jitsu, yielding with the bowlers’ force and letting it work for him. In mid-afternoon, he let the ball run off the face of his bat to the third-man boundary, and India were ahead. Strike three to India.

From there, he blossomed, playing some sweet drives and flicks and tapping the short ball on the head. Most importantly, he gave his partners confidence, enlisting Hanuma Vihari to join him for 21 overs, Rishabh Pant for 15, and Ravindra Jadeja, most decisively, for the last three hours of play. Is there such a thing as strike four?

The more effortless Rahane’s batting, the harder Australia sweated. Starc was unlucky three times: Rahane nicked him between wicketkeeper and slip, then jammed a chance to a late-moving Smith, and finally popped a sitter which Travis Head managed to fluff. It was the fourth clear catch, among many other close calls, that Australia had missed. One more and they equal India’s fielding in Adelaide. Look out for their second innings.

Denied momentum, Paine strained. Asking his pacemen for too many overs with the old ball, he found them spent when the new one arrived. It is the Australian way to make things happen, but happenings wouldn’t be made. When Cameron Green came on with a ball 10 overs old and followed a plan of dangling bait out wide, it did look as if Australia had run out of ideas.

In snuffing out his counterpart’s influence, Rahane has breathed life into the series. By the time a southerly change arrived to blow tumbleweeds of trash across the MCG, Rahane’s century stood alone. This was a great innings. The captain had picked up his country. Paine and the Australians were left to pick up the rubbish.

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