Updated: March 29, 2017 9:43:56 am
In a town grown up on an ODI/T20 diet, it was understandable that the first three days of the fourth and final Test of the India-Australia series were not well attended. At least on two sides, empty stands stared back at the cricketers as they were locked in a compelling contest at one of the most picturesque grounds in the world. It could be attributed to a lot of factors: early morning starts, a student/working class population, and general short attention span of the cricket-watching public. On Tuesday morning, however, it changed. At 8 am, when they ought to have been rushing to work/school/college, people pulled out their blue No.18 jerseys and headed for the cricket. Even many tourists from nearby McLeodganj traded a visit to the monastery or waterfall or the ridge with one to the HPCA Stadium.
One way of interpreting all this excitement could be that with India needing 87 runs with 10 wickets in hand, it wouldn’t take, in the spectators’ estimation, more than a session to knock those runs off. They would see a Test and series win in T20 time. But that would be harsh and cynical. You could see as they practically hurtled down the slopes to the stadium that they wanted to be part of an imminent, momentous achievement: to watch a stunning, grandstand finish of an unprecedented home season. An I-was-there moment for Indian cricket to rival Lord’s 1983 or Wankhede 2011. It may sound as one, but it’s NOT an exaggeration. After today, India hold series rubbers again all Test nations. It’s the equivalent of winnings a world Test championship.
17.5 overs. Or about one-and-a-half hours. The time India took to knock off the runs they needed. A insignificant period in a Test match, a miniscule one in a four-match series, and a blink of an eye in a six-month long season. But it too was full of drama. Murali Vijay and KL Rahul survived an intense couple of overs from Josh Hazlewood; Rahul then took on left-arm spinner Steve ’O Keefe. Just when it looked like India would win on a canter, Pat Cummins took out Vijay with a peach, and Cheteshwar Pujara was run out in the same over following a mix-up. Butterflies in the stomach. Was there a last twist left in the series that had seen so many? You bet there was: the twist of knife by the stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane.
He hadn’t made too many runs in the series, or before that in the season, aside of his 188 against New Zealand in Indore in October. India needed 60 more. Steve Smith might not have thought of a win at this point, but he would have hoped of making a match out of it. Thus began a fleeting, but intensely engaging battle within a battle: Rahane versus Cummins. A crunchy straight punch was followed by a meaty hook as Rahane rattled Cummins with back-to-back boundaries. Another four past fine leg and Cummins came around the wicket. Four men stood on the boundary between third man to deep mid-wicket. The big bloke set the aim and dug in, the small guy shifted the weight on his back foot and pivoted. The ball met the bat. The ball disappeared into the stands. ‘Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho’ – the crowd went ecstatic. Cummins reset the aim and pitched short again, but slightly wide of off-stump. Rahane had read his mind and re-adjusted his stance. The front leg was cleared. The ball met the bat. The ball disappeared over deep cover. A roar echoed in the Kangra Valley.
Rahul tucked ’O Keefe past mid-wicket and ran. The first one brought up his fifty. The second India’s win. And then he and Rahane ran one more. Miscalculations, or perhaps for kicks? The crowd erupted, handshakes and hugs broke out in the Indian dressing room. Rahane pulled out a stump, but Rahul hadn’t stopped running, till he came in front of the pavilion stand. He threw his bat and helmet on the ground, and screamed a scream of release. It has been a painful up-and-down season for the Mangalore lad. An injury to the shoulder in Kanpur in the first Test of the home season put the new opener out for nearly two months. A string of low scores was broken by 199 against England in Chennai, but even that knock contained a tinge of agony – of missing out on a double. In the Australia series, he was batting with the assurance of a fixed deposit for the Indian team: no tall claims, no threat of capital loss. He was, instead, a guarantee that they will get a fifty. Except in the second innings on a minefield in Pune, he gave them that in every innings of the series: six out seven that India played. It was a remarkable performance in a series that saw, expect Ranchi, rather low-scoring matches. In this Test, his first innings performance against Cummins and Hazlewood was perhaps the best display of defensive batting by an Indian against feisty fast bowling in recent times. But there has been a sense of unfulfillment as well: of not going on to convert those fifties into hundreds.
Rahul is just one of the performers of the Indian squad that’s bursting at the seams with match winners. Cheteshwar Pujara was run out for an anti-climactic zero in the final innings, but he has struck eight fifties and four hundreds, including a double. Virat Kohli struck three doubles in three series; Karun Nair might have dropped catches, but he himself was dropped after making a triple century against England. Ravindra Jadeja has phenomenal all-round numbers [556 runs and 71 wickets] while Wriddhiman Saha, has been a safety net down the order and behind the wicket.
The Indian pacers have had a breakout season, giving wickets on lifeless tracks whenever their captain has thrown the ball to them to rest his frontline spinners. And then, they finally got some assistance in Dharamsala and rattled the Australian cages. And what of R Ashwin – 81 wickets in 13 matches! As he himself remarked after bowling one last time this season on Monday: “It has been a magical season. It is going to be pretty difficult to replicate it.” Maybe, not Ashwin who has set the bar too high, but some of the others will better themselves in their careers, but as a unit, too, India will find it hard to top what they have achieved. Let’s put their achievements into perspective.
When the season started, the expectations were soaring. Everyone remembered the South African 3-0 drubbing on raging turners. It looked like India might roll out similar tracks and steamroll all of them. Anil Kumble did two things two days before the season opener in Kanpur: he dismissed pitch talk and broke down the season into Tests, Tests into days and days into sessions. On mostly fair sub-continental tracks, his team looked to win sessions, especially clutch sessions. It was like tennis, points (sessions) resulted in games (days), which resulted in sets (Tests) and finally the match (series) was pocketed.
Then came the first true stinker of a pitch in Pune, and India lost the match. Then came the first innings meltdown against Nathan Lyon and the team stood a couple of sessions from ceding their claim on the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. More than lopsided wins, these come-from-behind victories are what test, and make, the character of a team. Adversity transforms boys into men. As Kohli egged the crowd on; as Ishant made faces and the ball talk, the Indians showed their inner steel. That they could win not only from winning positions, but losing ones as well. The biggest Test came in Dharamsala. With the series on the line, they lost their emblematic skipper, lost the toss, lost the first session, and then clawed back from there for their 10th win of the season. Rallying performances such as these are not for the current set of players, or fans, or even opposition. When you win matches you have no business of winning, then it is for posterity. Like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope against George Foreman; Manchester United’s late-late comeback against Bayern Munich; why, Barcelona’s 6-5 win against PSG. These are the kind of results that fans—such as those who were at the HPCA Stadium in Dharamsala or in front of their TV sets— will get hope from when their team, or man, is in a corner.
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