A rearguard action in Sydney that keeps Test flame burning

A question lingered: which India would turn up on day five in Sydney, the one that got shot out for its lowest Test score of 36 in Adelaide, or the one that turned the tables magnificently in Melbourne?

Ravi Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari braved injury and a hostile Australian bowling attack to salvage a draw on day five of the third India vs Australia Test in Sydney.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Test cricket is the classic slow burn. Not for it the instant joys of limited-overs cricket. It is all about the gradual buildup, accumulating nerve-shredding tension over four days before it all explodes on the concluding day. And while shadows stretch, spectators turn their throats hoarse and nails are threatened, be it in the stands or the dressing rooms.

But not all Tests last five days, and with the proliferation of Twenty20s, willow-wielders tend to hustle, a trait which at times creeps into their Test batsmanship, too. Batting for time, the kind that Rahul Dravid symbolised or the one that Cheteshwar Pujara nurses, is a fading art. In this breathless rush to slip into fifth gear, runs cascade but wickets tumble too, and cricket’s longest format often shrivels within four days or even three.

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But Tests can spring surprises, the kind that has aftereffects lasting decades. And the just-concluded Sydney Test, the third of the four-match series involving Australia and India, was one such epic contest. The most delicious twist is that it ended in a stalemate, but a draw that had all the usual thrills associated with face-offs yielding decisive results.

India stepped into the Sydney Cricket Ground on Day Five with a second innings score of 98 for two. The target was a distant 407, but coping with the match’s fourth innings on a wearing surface while the host sensed a triumph would always be arduous. A question lingered: which India would turn up, the one that got shot out for its lowest Test score of 36 in Adelaide, or the one that turned the tables magnificently in Melbourne?

Pujara and Pant mixed caution with aggression as India tilted the scales in its favour on day five.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

Skipper Ajinkya Rahane fell to Nathan Lyon’s guile in the day’s second over. India 102 for three, a whole day to bat while its change room was a picture of the walking wounded. Enter Rishabh Pant and the game’s tonality changed. Soon it was all about sunshine and hope, maybe Don Quixote, too. But he believed that a fight was on the cards and on equal terms. His 97 (118 balls, 12 fours, 3 sixes) and the stunning 148-run fourth-wicket partnership he shared with bulwark Pujara (77, 205 balls, 12 fours) drew in hopes of a miracle. Remember Eden Gardens 2001?

India against Australia always dishes out crazy scripts, the kind that you can only wonder about in awe while the players turn into gladiators. Australia, a team with exemplary bowlers and agile fielders, turned ragged. Lines were altered, catches were spilled and the banter got shrill and personal. You cannot give Facebook friend requests on the turf, but a certain civility is necessary.

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And again the game turned, or we thought that way when both Pant and Pujara fell. Would it be the last flicker before the flame turned cold? But Hanuma Vihari and R. Ashwin had other ideas. The pursuit was discarded and it was a decision that had cricketing logic, and they joined forces in a Gandhian way – solid defence coated with a monk’s meditative streak. There was an air of Zen around them and it boiled down to one ball at a time, a repetitive but essential anthem perhaps within their minds.

Australia persevered. Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Lyon tried their best. The faster men even targeted the ribcage besides their staple diet outside the off-stump, while Lyon leant on the pitch, coaxing it to spit some venom. Yet, Vihari and Ashwin had their answers. This was stonewalling of the highest calibre, the kind that would make past masters proud ranging from Sunil Gavaskar to their current colleague Pujara.

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At times, a sub-fifty individual score can have infinite value. Vihari’s 23 (161 balls) and Ashwin’s 39 (128 balls), both unbeaten knocks, will glitter in their record books more than their respective tons etched in the past. Vihari tore a hamstring, Ashwin was battered by the speedsters. Still, the two hung in. There were slivers of luck and Australian captain Tim Paine spoke more than he caught and the host just had to accept that a draw was inevitable and hence hands were shook when just one over remained. There were no spoils of war, but despite the draw, a glorious one at that, Rahane’s men were the moral victors.

Tim Paine of Australia reacts after dropping a catch of Hanuma Vihari during day five of the 3rd Test match against India at Sydney Cricket Ground.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

A rearguard action like this is a rare sighting these days in Tests. The latest act owed its origins to Pant’s audacity of hope and the patience that seeped into the souls of Pujara, Vihari and Ashwin. The last-named has been involved in similar Tests. In 2011 at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, India needed 243 from its second innings. But the West Indies fought hard and M. S. Dhoni’s men ended at 242 for nine, the overall scores were level and it was a draw that sounded like a tie! In 2013 December, in a Test at Johannesburg, South Africa, chasing 458, finished with 450 for seven on the final day with Faf du Plessis and A. B. de Villiers slamming classy hundreds.

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But these are rare occurrences. A drawn Test with the ingredients of a thriller is an oddity, and when we sight one, we need to celebrate. It is also another pointer to life: It is never black and white; there are shades of grey, too. Savour Sydney for a while; this was an encounter that pitted broad bats and broader hearts against the might of the Aussies, and India came out trumps.

The scorecard would say that chasing 407, India finished with 334 for five, but it wouldn’t entirely convey the drama that this game encapsulated. This was a Test for the ages. Who said stalemates cannot be alluring?