How Kohli, Rahane, and Pujara contrived to get out again

India’s experienced middle-order trio of Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, and Ajinkya Rahane hasn’t scored big runs for a couple of years now and ended 2021 with a top score of 48 across their six knocks in the Centurion Test. Their dismissals in the second innings on Wednesday were a mix of the disappointingly familiar and the shockingly uncharacteristic.

Ten in ten

The India Test captain has sharpened the cover drive into a weapon of remorseless accumulation over the years. He also likes to reach out and feel deliveries in the channel, an area where convention dictates letting them pass. There have been calls for him to avoid the drive, but it is also the stroke that has brought him so many runs through his career, and runs are what he dearly needs at the moment. In any case, nicking off has clearly become an issue, now that he has fallen edging to either keeper or slip in ten successive overseas innings. India’s lead had just gone past 200 in Centurion when Kohli departed for 18, edging a big drive behind off debutant Marco Jansen. He’d fallen on the big drive in the first innings too. Lungi Ngidi’s late away swing had done him in then; the left-armer’s angle did the trick in the second innings.

When he is cover-driving well, he leans across to get as close to the ball as possible, which allows him to work his top hand into the shot. But when he is away from the ball, the bottom-hand takes over completely as he reaches out and it upsets the apple cart.

Soft and softer

You may or may not agree with his methods, but there is no doubting that if there is a batsman who makes bowlers earn his wicket, it is Pujara. You don’t associate soft dismissals with Pujara, especially if he’s got his eye in. But when it’s not going your way, it really isn’t. The golden duck in the first innings was only Pujara’s second in 93 Tests. There was nothing really alarming about Lungi Ngidi’s delivery — it moved in slightly after pitching — but Pujara managed to lob a bat-pad catch to short leg. The second-innings dismissal happens to unfortunate batsmen all the time. A nothing delivery angled down the leg side; how many times would Pujara have whipped those through midwicket or square leg? Not on Wednesday. He merely tickled it on its way into the keeper’s gloves.

He did have his luck earlier though when he almost scooped an on drive straight to mid-on where Kagiso Rabada dropped it.

Short and abort

Ajinkya Rahane has had his problems with the short ball, most notably in New Zealand in 2020 and against the same opponents in the World Test Championship final this year. The latter one was somewhat similar to what happened in Centurion in the second innings. In Southampton, Rahane had seen square leg come in right after an awkward, airy pull. He’d played well until then for 49. Perhaps the fifty was on his mind, or perhaps the fielder; off the next ball, short again, Rahane played a weak, half-hearted pull straight into square leg’s hands. On Wednesday, he’d raced to 20 off 22 with three fours and a six — a confident pull over fine leg off Jansen. With Rahane these days though, the rare passage of rhythm can just vanish. Soon he dragged a Jansen lifter from outside off without any conviction. Fine leg and deep square leg were in place; the ball found the latter.

These days, not just in this knock where the approach was understandable to an extent on a tough pitch, he seems to almost set himself for just a frenetic cameo. There is an apparent lack of trust in the defensive part of the game.

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