With a hundred that was as much silk as it was steel, KL Rahul ended a barren phase in international cricket. With a half-century that was as much flash as it was flamboyance, Rishabh Pant re-established his stock in ODI cricket. Rahul, stroking 108 balls from 114 balls, built a sturdy foundation. Pant, shellacking 77 off 40, hurriedly piled on the storeys as India posted 336/6, not a skyscraper in this day and age, but a high-rise nonetheless.
Both their worlds blended in imperceptibly, which had seemed distant in recent times. Even antithetical. Their paths seemed drifting apart. Pant, for all his red-ball exploits, had failed to nail down his spot in the 50-over format. Rahul, despite his travails in Test and T20Is, had been consistently insuperable in ODIs, wherein he had been keeping wickets too. In that sense, they were pitted as direct competitors, pulled away from playing together by circumstances.
Brought together by fate
In an ideal world, Rahul could have opened, but Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan have shown no signs of disuniting yet. He could not be slotted in as a pure middle-order batsman, as there already were the irreplaceable Virat Kohli and the blossoming Shreyas Iyer, followed by the all-rounders. So the only way he could be slotted in was as a â€™keeper, which could have been Pantâ€™s position but for his own failures to crack the ODI code. So much so that if the left-hander was to make a comeback, Rahul seemed the likeliest expendable. More so, given his wretched form in recent times. Itâ€™s a credit to the team management that they persisted with both. Sheer talent, after all, has a seductive pull.
But their worlds met again when Iyer was injured, barging his shoulder onto the ground, while aborting a boundary in the first ODI. Rahul was restored as a specialist batsman, and Pant returned to the format he hadnâ€™t quite cracked after 15 months. The fusion of two irresistible talents was brilliant as much as it was brutal. Rahul was Rolls Royce to Pantâ€™s Ferrari. Rahul glided forth, Pant blitzed forth. Rahul melts your heart, Pant make it beat faster. The thrills they provide are different but equally compelling.
If ODI knocks have begun to resemble T20 ones of late, Rahulâ€™s was a throwback effort, when he constructed his innings brick by brick, eschewing risk and fetching boundaries only when opportunities begged him to do so. He smuggled singles and twos, while hitting the occasional boundary, especially when the bowlers over-pitched. He drove gorgeously, through cover as well as down the ground. None as imperious as when he cover-drove Adil Rashidâ€™s googly, gliding his front-foot out (which had gone AWOL in Test matches) and splaying his wrists at the last moment to open the bat face to cajole the ball towards the left of the cover fielder. It took another 10 overs for him to find his next boundary, a trademark cut off Rashidâ€™s googly. He picked the length and variation so early that he was in a position to cut, fully on the back foot, even before the ball had landed.
It was the genius of Rahul in full flow. He could read the mind of a bowler and get early into positions. A few overs later, he sashayed down the track and creamed Rashid over his head, barely stretching a sinew. Kohli, at the other end, was equally watchful on a surface that was holding up a bit when the spinners bowled. Rashid and his off-spinning colleague Moeen Ali probed tight lengths to keep them on a leash. Kohli and Rahul, throughout their 121-run association, were wise enough to not embrace unnecessary risk either, but at the same time managed to keep the score ticking along with stealth and smarts.
Even in the final stages of his innings, Rahul was risk-averse. Such is his repertoire that he neednâ€™t wink in low-percentage strokes. Instead, he unfurled one glorious stroke after another, the best being a six over extra-cover off Tom Curran, just before he reached his hundred.
By that time, Pant had freewheeled to a half-century himself off only 28 balls. He doesnâ€™t bother much about sophistry or splendour. He just sees gaps. When the ball is in his slot, fullish on middle and leg, it is invariably fleeced. Even if itâ€™s not in his zone, itâ€™s still thundered, as Englandâ€™s bowlers realised. Pant is in unstoppable form, as he keeps ticking one box after another, just as he keeps flaying one ball after another for boundaries. He struck seven thunderous sixes â€”each a guillotine blow, some just one-handed, some just power â€” but it was a four he struck that was the most audacious. Tom Curran had just about strayed onto his pads, and Pant was readying for the heave, but the ball was slightly fuller than he had gauged. But it did not matter. With a violent whirr of the wrists and a twitch of the bottom hand, he hacked the ball ferociously between square-leg and fine-leg. The fury of the stroke was unmatched in the innings. By now, runs were gushing forth like a wild torrent, the alliance between Pant and Rahul amounting to 113 in 13.4 overs.
It was an ODI script as it was always meant to be written â€”accumulation and controlled aggression in the first 35 overs (173/3), and helter-skelter run-making in the last 15 (163/3). India have the right men for both phases.
Itâ€™s unclear whether one of them would make way for Iyer when he returns, but they established their worth through their own different but inimitable styles. Rahul made a strong case as a specialist batsman (a â€™keeper in contingency at best) while Pant illustrated that heâ€™s too irresistible a talent, going through an irresistible phase, to be kept away from any form of the game. Their worlds, after all, can coexist. Beautifully.