Old hands Rahane and Pujara throw quick punches at Bullring

Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are no strangers to hard times. Pujara has fought injuries, indifferent form, insecurities, question marks on intent and fitness and what not in his decade-long international career. Rahane has braved perception battles, an eternity on the waiting list for his Test debut and numerous instances of fickle form. At times, they have been together in the battle too, perhaps bound by the old-fashioned tenets of their batting, or just that they happen to be, for much of their career, the only Test specialist batsmen in the team.

But every time they have seemed teetering on the brink, a half-step away from the gorge, a push from a quivering cliff, they have clung on with a streak of ruthlessness that dwells contrastingly with their calm exterior, a little flicker that suggests there is still life and light left in them. Their 111-run duet — off only 144 balls — at Wanderers may or may not prolong their career, one may not sing hallelujah that they have emphatically rediscovered their form, but it does prove they have the stomach for the fight, defiance and determination to turn around their careers that seemed slipping into the sunset.

And perhaps, more importantly, and of more immediate significance, they could help India win the Wanderers Test, and thus a series in South Africa for the first time. And if indeed India go and win the series, built on the magnificence of their pace-pack and openers, Rahane and Pujara would not be at least forgotten.

Rather, their cameos — more so for Pujara who likes to bat deep and long and for whom 53 could be a cause of concern — would be extolled and their counterpunching masterpieces woven into the Bullring folklore. It was as much about the runs they scored as about how they scored them. Least of all, it was an unexpected approach from two men wading through tough times.

Pujara (left), Rahane (right). (AP)

Pujara looked ponderous in the previous outings — one even wondered whether the lack of runs was weighing so heavily in his mind that he needed a genuine break. Rahane seemed confused — whether he needed to embrace caution or aggression, and was often struck in between.

But on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, they batted with crystalline clarity – the clarity, perhaps, of two cornered men.

This was no time to be cagey and scratchy — had they been, South Africa’s bowlers would have scavenged the last remains of their confidence — but the time to be aggressive and proactive. But for all the people one expects to hit their way out of form, Pujara would be the last one. But then, it has been the Pujara way of late. At both The Oval and Leeds, he raced off to half-centuries, before decelerating. It’s his counter-instinct — he usually crawls to his 30s or 40s, before altering to a higher tempo. It was the inverse in all these three knocks.

Attack is the best defence

Here he was, remorseless on anything half as a loose ball. On Tuesday evening, with South Africa’s bowlers sniffing the kill after taking out the openers, Pujara defused them with a flurry of boundaries. The sort of boundary shots one rarely sees from him — like the pull, or the hook (which he top-edged), the off-drives (who says he has forgotten how to drive) and the cuts. Right from the offset, there was a heroic nature to his knock, and he began the third day with a similar approach, punishing the wayward Lung Ngidi for a brace of fours in the space of three balls. The first was a ball at his body that he glided — a staple stroke of his. But the second was an emphatic on-drive, which, on most other instances he would have defended. It was a shot almost hit in anger, the bat flourish unusually proud.

It was a discernible sign that he and Rahane were in a mood to counterpunch, though the pitch was fresh and the bowlers fresher. The logic was clear and sound — better to play your strokes and risk getting out rather than hang around, before, inevitably, the ball with your name on it arrives.

India’s Cheteshwar Pujara, left and teammate Ajinkya Rahane in action during a Test. (File)

Rahane was the more subdued partner on Tuesday, but under the crisp morning skies, he unfurled the whole range of strokes that make him such a delectable treat for the eyes. Just four overs into the day, he pulled out the upper-cut against Marco Jansen, who he had driven down the ground with the gentlest of pushes. He bookended the next over, by Ngidi, with a pair of boundaries.

Their morale dented, South Africa’s seamers lost their radar. Panicked, they resorted to defensive lines. Desperation and fielding errors crept in. In the end, it took the inspired genius of Kagiso Rabada to eject both and inject some life into the match. Both were beautiful deliveries — as only Rabada, among the hosts’ seamers, seemed capable of conjuring. Rahane’s ball seamed away and bounced awkwardly, seemingly from a crack, while Pujara’s bent back sharply onto his pads. But by then, India’s lead had galloped to 135 runs on a deteriorating deck.

Both walked back to the pavilion dejectedly, for they seemed markedly capable of taking their individual scores as well as India’s lead to a more substantial figure. In the end, the half-centuries might not yet guarantee them a spot in the playing eleven for the next Test. But for what it was, they not only laid the foundation of a steep target, but also demonstrated that there is still fight left in them, and in their battle for survival, they are flexible enough to alter their approach. And once again, as if bound by destiny, together in their survival battle.

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