Ajinkya Rahane's hammer in MS Dhoni's MCG swansong
The Saidulajab Village contains a worn-out, clustered enclave inside an otherwise posh area of Saket in New Delhi. Sandwiched between the concrete jungles and Ajit Agarkar-thin lanes lives the owner of the hostel I used to reside in.
A jolly man on face-value, he is a cunning capitalist who knows his way around people. He is the kind of guy who’d share beer mugs with you but not bat an eye before kicking you out if you’re late on rent.
Much like the Australians who make ‘beer mates’ with every other member of the opposition, but won’t flinch from abusing them on the field, standing in the slips, short leg, silly point, and... mid-off.
I didn’t have much to do with him. I didn’t have much to do with anyone either. The winter of 2014 brought to me a spring that helped graveyards blossom into meadows. The grass covering still sends chills down my spine.
1024 km away, Ajinkya Rahane didn’t have much to do with anyone either. Not one bit did he care about the grass, the mates or the abuse. Rahane at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in December 2014 was every bit of the free man that I wanted to be.
Draped in the white blanket that half-covered half-loitered around, I watched, braving shivers, hunger, sleep and anxiety, a man who numbed all of these sensations and made Delhi’s winters seem far less horrendous than Boxing-Day Tests.
A cover drive off Josh Hazlewood took as long to reach the fence as Ricky Ponting would have taken to reach the pavilion after being run out by the substitute Gary Pratt at Trent Bridge in 2005. The MCG is that big.
An outside edge flew between the keeper Brad Haddin and the man at first slip. Michael Clarke screamed ‘catch it’ from the commentary box – having sat out of the game after scoring a hundred in Adelaide – but the ball had flown by then, much like it would flow for the rest of the day.
Rahane was on 8 then, and Virat Kohli at the other end, on 36.
India had choked in Adelaide and had surrendered with fatal wounds at the Gabba. For the most optimistic of Indian fans, the series was lost. It was in 1981 that India had last beaten Australia at the G.
Steve Smith did what he was about to do more of for the next three years against India – scored a mind-numbing 192 – to take Australia to 530.
Murali Vijay responded with his own 68, but it was just that – a Vijay-esque 68, much like the 90-odd at Lord’s, good, fighting, gritty but not enough to help the cause. Seasons can change within sessions while you’re batting at the MCG, which means you need to weather storms apart from weathering the opposition that’s always at your ears.
Nostalgia is a dirty liar. As I lay draped between the sheets, paralyzed by more of what was inside than outside, the bravery of 2007-08 kept overpowering the 2011-12 drubbing.
However, it doesn’t augur well to live off the past. It does well, though, to make peace with it. I had to make peace that my adulthood would be spent waiting for the tour of redemption – when India finally conquers the seemingly unconquerable – a swansong to remember, the last hurrah, perhaps, before another inevitably long drought.
If not that, I needed my moment of sweet revenge. Little did I know that it would be a swansong indeed, and that too of the kind you expect the least. Little did Rahane know that he would silently be gifting his captain a perfect farewell.
After being cover-driven, Hazlewood shortens his length, and Rahane guides him off the backfoot through the third man region by standing tall and opening the face of the bat. He goes short again, he gets hammered through midwicket as the Australians realize that hurling words and short balls isn’t the same thing.
By the time he reached his 50, he had hit 6 boundaries and had faced 60 balls. Kohli was batting on 68.
Hazlewood was batted out of the attack, Shane Watson was square cut through point, and Steve Smith, performing the last rites of his erstwhile role of a leg spinner, was cover-driven.
That boundary off Smith showed why this innings was special. A low full toss just outside off stump could have been hit anywhere in the ‘V.’ However, Rahane chose to give it a gentle push and thread the gap between short cover and mid-off.
Smith looked skywards in exasperation as the ball pierced the two diving fielders. That had to be the tune of the day. Balls beating fielders, going through the hands – when Nathan Lyon allowed a drive right back at him to slip in between his palms – and giving them excruciating chases to the fence.
Rahane reaches 96. Kohli is on 90.
Shane Watson drops one on length, Rahane throws his bat at it, the ball swirls in the air and just evades the man at backward point. A fortuitous way to bring up a majestic hundred, one would say, but the man deserved it.
101 off 127 balls at a strike rate of 78 with 13 boundaries at the MCG in the Boxing-Day Test. I had my sweet revenge.
Australia went from Hazlewood to Harris to Watson to Lyon to Smith and finally, to Mitchell Johnson. I turned around, sat up, mustered all my strength to pull the blanket close as if draping another body next to mine and watched in rapt attention.
Johnson’s f***tardery of collecting a Kohli straight drive in his follow-through and throwing it right back at the batsman – not the stumps – hadn’t gone down well. Neither with me nor with the batsman who would go on to plunder him and his teammates for 169 runs.
Rahane almost knew that Mitch would go short sooner than later. He is past his hundred, and so is Kohli. Johnson has figures of 0/101. The tables have turned.
The bumper comes, but Rahane doesn’t read it off the pitch. He reads it off Johnson’s mind. In a West Indies-esque manner, the front leg goes out of the way and aligns itself almost in line with the back leg outside the leg stump.
The 142 kph snorter is met flesh and bones at the batting end and is spanked through deep midwicket. Rahane reaches his highest Test score of 119. Johnson is infuriated.
The next ball, Rahane backs away again, Johnson thinks he’s waiting for the short one and darts one full on leg stump. Rahane knew that Johnson would think he’d be anticipating a short one and was ready with plan B.
The sucker ball comes, not so much for Rahane as it is for Johnson, and the Indian drives it straight down the ground from outside the leg stump. “Mitchell Johnson is getting hammered, probably for the first time in 18 months,” exclaims one of the commentators. He could not have been more right.
Johnson, clueless, goes back to short-pitched stuff. There are moments in life when you’re so painstakingly numb that every step towards an escape drags you further down the pit. The escape isn’t the right choice then, persistence is.
Rahane hammers another one through midwicket and bats the 37-wicket rich Ashes extraordinaire out of the bowling attack. In the story of sheep vs lions, the MCG on December 28, 2014, had seen two outsiders – two wolves who had decided to go wild.
India ended day three on 462/8, Rahane and Kohli were both dismissed on 147 and 169, respectively, and I cuddled against my own solitude inside the blanket, forgetting, for a moment, the invincible winter that Delhi had struck me with and smiled thinking that graveyards too have their springs.
Cricket was my spring and Rahane was its most beautiful flower.