Trailing 0-1 in the four-match series, India ended the second day at 277 for five for a handy 82-run lead after bowling out Australia for 195 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
At stumps, which was brought early owing to rain, Rahane was going strong on 104 and giving him company was Ravindra Jadeja on 40, the two having added what might prove to be a game-changing 104-run partnership for the sixth wicket.
This was Rahane’s 12th Test hundred and his second at the iconic venue, after a fine 147 during the 2014 tour.
A day after earning rich praise for his tactical acumen while marshalling the bowlers, Rahane shone bright with the bat and was spot on with his reading of match situations during his stay in the middle.
“This knock was all about patience, more importantly when you are playing such a high quality pace attack, sometimes you get into shell and not able to score runs, and the way Ajinkya bhai played, it was such a magnificent knock to watch from outside,” Shubahman Gill said during a virtual press conference.
“How to see off those tough periods, he made it sure that he put the loose balls away.”
Rahane got a life when Steve Smith dropped him on 73 at second slip in Australia’s first over with the second new ball, the unlucky bowler being Mitchell Starc, who was taken off the attack after just two overs with the shining red cherry.
That particular phase was crucial from both the team’s point of view and by not losing a wicket to the second new ball, India ensured they finished the day ahead of Australia, in terms of runs as well as psychologically.
Rahane got another reprieve when substitute fielder Travis Head put one down after diving forward from gully, but that was after he had got to the three-figure mark.
To start with, Rahane was more watchful that he had ever been but as the day progressed, he went on to play some sumptuous shots and one of his day’s best was the classic off-drive against Pat Cummins.
Australian speedster Mitchell Starc rued the chances his team squandered.
“It (the knock by Rahane) was pretty good. He absorbed some pressure there and sort of steadied the ship for them, at (a time) when they were still behind our score,” the Australian pacer said.
“He (Rahane) has batted really well there, he took his chances and we probably could have got him out three or four or maybe five times before he got a hundred, but he’s run his luck there and scored a good hundred. Well done to him.”
Earlier, Rishabh Pant (29) and Hanuma Vihari (21) frittered away promising starts after doing all the hard work, but Jadeja was determined not to do anything of that sort.
Vihari fell to off-spinner Nathan Lyon while trying to sweep him from outside off-stump after he had added 52 runs for the fourth wicket with his captain.
In came Pant and despite the constant scrutiny around him, the wicketkeeper-batsman showed no nerves and confidently went about playing his strokes.
If Rahane managed to blunt the opposition bowlers with his defensive approach before opening up, Pant’s aggression forced Australia to change their attacking tactic.
Rahane’s first real authoritative shot was a cracking pull off Josh Hazlewood and there was also a sumptuous off-drive for a four. Balls directed on Rahane’s pads were comfortably whipped through the mid-wicket or square-leg region and he was equally good while playing the drives and cuts.
At the other end, just when Pant was beginning to pose a treat to the hosts, Starc forced an edge to bring the match back on even keel. It was Paine’s 150th dismissal and wicket number 250 for Starc.
The second session saw India score 99 runs after they managed just 54 in the first, during which they also lost two wickets in as many overs to the relentless Cummins.
Resuming on 36 for one, India started cautiously before losing both their overnight batsmen — debutant Shubman Gill and the seasoned Cheteshwar Pujara — in the space of 11 balls to reach 90 for three at lunch.
At lunch, Rahane was batting on 10 and giving him company was Vihari on 13 with India trailing by 105 runs.
The 21-year-old Gill impressed on his debut with a fluent 45 and played some fine shots during his 65-ball knock at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. While Pujara made 17, having faced 70 deliveries.
The first to go was Gill, who perished when he edged Cummins for Paine to take a regulation catch behind the stumps.
Australia were soon celebrating again as Cummins picked up the big wicket of Pujara after straightening him up with a brilliant delivery that angled in and moved just enough to induce an edge.
Paine, who lost a review after assuming that Gill had nicked the day’s very first delivery, complemented his top fast bowler by completing a fine diving catch.