The tale of 2 partnerships at the SCG
I am sure Ashwin and Hanuma's tanks were as empty as my bottle was, but they manage to find that one droplet and make it look like a bottle-full.
There are probably dozens and dozens of reviews out there already about the heist the Indian team managed as I try to pen down my version of the turn of events at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
3 AM in the USA, stumps on day 4, I went to bed wondering how long the match would last on the final day. The Indian openers were back in the hut and an already challenging draw looked insurmountable. Variable bounce, a rampaging Pat Cummins, the ever so accurate Josh Hazlewood, the wily and consistent Nathan Lyon, it was a door closed, shut and truly sealed.
The most faithful among the Indian fan always looks forward to every new day in test cricket, even if it means India hanging by a thread. But, he/she also visualizes the most dreaded moments and the most hopeful ones before the start of every day's play. For me, it was the picture of Lyon extracting turn and bounce on a 5th day SCG surface and managing to find the bat-pad of the Indian batsmen. On a hopeful note, it was the picture of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, batting session after session and doing a AB De Villiers and Faf Du Plessis to steer India home to safety.
When the first thing that happens in the beginning of a fresh day, turns out to be something you visually dreaded about, the last ounces of hope evaporates. That is exactly what transpired when Lyon managed to find the bat-pad of Rahane, only to go straight into the accepting hands of Wade.
But, do I just switch off the television ? No, I just keep watching to see how it all ends. Out came, Rishabh Pant to everyone's surprise. What happens from there, is a tale of 2 partnerships that not only reverses the course of the match but also reverses a deeply divisive opinion of 'one size fit all' approach to test batsmanship, that stemmed from the excruciatingly slow scoring rate of India's no.3 in his first stint. The attempt to bridge this divisiveness had to happen on the cricketing field itself. Oh boy, it is only apt that the cricketing Gods choose this day to serve out one lesson after another to those who failed to grasp how important it is to back one's natural game.
If ever there are two polar opposite ways of batting in test cricket, this is it. Pujara is all about the deft touches, making sure the ball doesn't feel any pain. Pant, on the other end, hits so hard that the ball fears going out of shape every time it hits his willow. The number 3 wishes his soft hands ensure the ball never carries to the waiting fielders, while the young wicket keeper wishes his bat speed and swing, gets it aerial and over the eager hands. Mathematically, the Saurashtra batsman is minimizing risks and over the course of innings keeps removing constraints one after the other at his own pace. The Delhi born southpaw is looking to maximize his runs in an unconstrained fashion.
Even their mode of dismissal reflects how glued they are to their game plan and their ability to do exactly what works for them, over and over again, shutting out all the noise for once. After 133 balls at the crease, it was as if Pujara was trying to replicate his 1st innings show, just to prove a point and Pant was busy erasing any remnants of the nervousness he showed in his first 30 balls, getting back to Pant ways.
Pujara, out of nowhere, pulls, cuts and drives Pat Cummins for 3 consecutive boundaries as if to say 'I can do a bit of bashing too. But I know when I should pull these cards out'. Pant goes for a glory shot to bring up his ton, only to find the outside edge and fall 3 short of a well earned ton. Pujara, in a space of few deliveries and Vihari's hamstring pull, falls prey to another 'ball of the series'. 'The swinging blade and the dead bat' are the methods they call on to perform the act of survival. Even the dismissals reflect how they adhere to their trusted methods through thick and thin.
Ravichandran Ashwin joins Vihari to deny what now seemed like an inevitable Aussie victory. Ashwin is going through a lean batting patch, with his last half-century coming almost 3 years back. If that isn't enough of a concern to have, later we would find out that he had a sore back and could barely tie his shoe laces. Imagine, going back and forth against Lyon on a 5th day pitch with a bad back and having no way of turning the strike over, courtesy an hamstrung Vihari. A probable win by now is a very likely loss.
Nearly 40 overs to bat. Forget the bad back, Ashwin delivers a template for a batsman on how to play a viciously turning ball on a 5th day track. He is busy leveraging every bit of his long levers, be it his hands or the legs; Putting his back through torture as he lunges forward with arguably one of the most pronounced forward presses; Getting to the pitch of the ball with the bat clearly in front of the pad and smothering that spin. When he finds the ball marginally short, he is exploring every last inch of his crease, rocking back and riding the bounce, thanks to his tall frame.
He is not nearly at ease with the quicks though, who are now peppering his ribs with some snorters. A shorter frame might have been more comfortable ducking, but not Ashwin. He is standing up tall, riding the bounce and in that process taking body blows from the Cummins' bumpers. The last thing he would have wanted is a logistical problem with his chest pad. It wouldn't take too much of sorting out for one of the sharpest cricketing brains, would it?
Hanuma, meanwhile, is busy writing his own template on how to defend against the quicks with virtually one leg. His hands don't move beyond the stumps, do not go fishing at anything outside off. Hanuma bats one ball at a time not looking at Brisbane, not looking at the home series and not even looking at his own scoring rate. If ever there was something called 'tunnel vision', Vihari was showing the narrowest of those visions. There was hardly any tactic left in the Aussie think-tank. Yorkers after bouncers, some chin music around the arm-pits, over the wicket, around the wicket, reverse swing, conventional swing, some banter, acts of mocking injuries. Nothing would broaden that tunnel vision, not today, not until 5 overs to go. Tim Paine grasses one rare nick in what is turning out to be a chance-less innings from the Andhra batsman.
Ashwin stays put against the spinner, Vihari drops anchor against the quicks. At a point of time, no runs had been scored in 40 odd balls. It is turning out to a classical lesson in constrained resource management. With 5 overs to go for the end, Starc bowling one late tailing yorker after another from around the wicket to Vihari, I am still sipping from my empty bottle for the umpteenth time, which I planned to fill up well before the tea break. When finally after a few more meaningless sips, I went up to fill my bottle, it meant Paine finally decided to acknowledge this great Indian heist. I am sure Ashwin and Hanuma's tanks were as empty as my bottle was, but they manage to find that one droplet and make it look like a bottle-full.
Hasn't this been the story of this Indian team this series? Today is a story of 3 B's : Blocking, Bashing and Bruising. They are getting pushed back with injuries at an exponential rate, but they are fighting them back at a factorial rate. I am not sure if there was a template in the format's rich history as to how to fight back from this kind of a pushback, if not, this Indian team can now patent one against their names. Bio-bubbles, racist comments, bruises, scoring rate scrutiny and the list keeps growing, but the team instead chooses to see a list of growing possibilities. Never before have so many odds been beaten on a single day and never before have so many divisive voices on scoring rate been silenced. It was possible, thanks to the two fairytale partnerships.