WTC Final 2023: India fight, Aussies in front

Rahane, Thakur arrest slide but Australia take sizeable lead on Day 3 at The Oval
India's Ajinkya Rahane and Shardul Thakur during day three of the World Test Championship Final against Australia at The Oval in London, on Friday. (Photo | AP)
India's Ajinkya Rahane and Shardul Thakur during day three of the World Test Championship Final against Australia at The Oval in London, on Friday. (Photo | AP)
LONDON: When the umpires signalled lunch on Day Three, a frustrated Pat Cummins kicked the ball towards the cordon on his follow-through. His act was met by cheers from the near-capacity Oval crowd. The reaction was in stark contrast to the quietness of the crowd after two balls into the opening session. KS Bharat lost the top of his off stump — the third batter to have met a similar fate then — and a quick ending was in sight.
At lunch, though, the Stadium was in a vibrant, joyous mood. The tricolour was fluttering in the stands and people were dancing to the sound of dhols next to the myriad Indian stalls outside the Stadium. One could say they had earned that break as much as Ajinkya Rahane and Shardul Thakur, the two men who breathed new life into an innings that was quickly heading towards life support territory. Once the two batters grafted their way past the initial stages, the crowd started living through the partnership. The 'ooohhhhhs' and 'aahhhhs' were more pronounced. There were generous claps for defensive pushes and fours were boisterously celebrated.
On an increasingly difficult pitch, Thakur and Rahane hadn't just survived; they had found a way to change the momentum of the innings. It's easy to paint the innings both of them played through the Mumbai khadoos (stubborn) but it also wouldn't be out of place. They got hit on multiple occasions — the Indian physio, at times, was shuttling back and forth every few overs — but they were at least displaying the resolve of a resistance band. Some of it was down to Australia's slapstick — another leg-before of a no-ball just before lunch (this is what prompted Cummins' reaction), as well as three, dropped chances — but this was a partnership borne out of bloody-mindedness and some words of encouragement. For example, after Thakur had flashed and missed at a wide ball, Rahane went down the wicket to have a few words, reminding him about the job at hand.  
The first real sign that the alliance was growing was when Rahane, no stranger to knocks like these under adversity, pounced on a nothing Cummins ball to pull him behind square for six. On the comeback trail after 18 months, Rahane needed this innings as much as the team. These days, one good innings doesn't move the needle as he's almost always under probation. If the six was the entree, three delightful shots off Nathan Lyon through the off-side served as desserts. The off-spinner was given the ball for the first time in the morning and Rahane didn't waste any time in capitalising on some loose deliveries.
In the commentary box, Ricky Ponting, here as an ambassador for the WTC final, couldn't help but wonder why he hasn't been a permanent fixture. "He played beautifully," Ponting told the media in an interaction before tea. "I said at the lunch break 'when you can play like that, you wonder why how he hasn't been picked in the team...' he has always been a classy-looking player, a player that has a good defence. We know his record suggests that he plays at his best when his team needs him the most. He has a few more Tests against the West Indies to make the selectors answer some questions. If he makes runs in those games, with (Shreyas) Iyer and KL (Rahul) coming back..."
So, what did Rahane do differently? The one visible adjustment he had made was playing close to the body. As a result, the impact point was all that closer when compared to the other Indian batters. "His average impact point so far is 1.49m whereas the rest of the Indian batters are averaging 2.04m," according to Cricviz, a sports data company. When he got out, a terrific hold from Cameron Green at gully, he had made an uncharacteristic error with respect to the innings of playing away from the body.
If that was the adjustment Rahane made, Thakur also made a slight adjustment. While his 51 was his third half-century at this ground, it was more patient, more measured than the two that had come against England in 2021. For batters like Thakur, there's always the temptation to clear the front leg and go for agricultural across-the-lie hoicks, more so after being hit repeatedly. Yet, he showed courage in getting behind the line to cover the line. By the time he was done, some of the drives evoked memories of Thakur's earliest nickname in international cricket (Shardulkar). Such was the correctness of some of the drives along the ground. Ultimately, though, his instincts took over as he was running out of partners. After he was dismissed, the innings soon ground to a halt.
At the close, Australia had reached 123/4 to lead by 296. They are comfortably ahead but that number would have been bigger if it wasn't for the partnership between Rahane and Thakur.

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The New Indian Express
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