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Thursday, February 25, 2021

One for the ages: India breach Fortress Gabba to write a glorious chapter in history

A minefield of talent called Rishabh Pant (89 not out off 138 balls) channelled his inner 'Mad Max' to scare the daylights out of the Australians with his breathtaking strokeplay, ending the home team's 32-year-old unbeaten run at the 'Fortress Gabba'.

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: January 19, 2021 8:58:13 pm
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In the end, after the end, a tempest of emotions swirled across Gabba, glittering in glorious sunshine. It was only after Rishabh Pant ran for the quickest runs in his life, uncertain the ball would trickle onto the rope at long-off, to script an unforgettable moment in Indian cricket, that all of the emotion, constrained from the moment they arrived in Australia, came rushing out in waves. Pant leapt to his feet and punched the air, before Shardul Thakur wrapped him in a heavy embrace. India had clinched the game by three wickets, chasing down 328, and the series 2-1.

In no time, the Indian players tore away from the dressing room towards Pant, who had his hands on his head, trying to take in what he has just achieved, still living in a wonderland, still getting to grips with the glory of the moment. The rest pulsed with adrenaline, dancing and running like children — arms stretched wide, faces lit up with glee — running with nowhere in mind.

In the midst of this delirium stood the knackered Australians, dejected and detached, wondering how the series had slithered out of their grasp. That morning in Adelaide belonged to an indistinct bygone age. Little would they have thought then that a series that began so emphatically would end so devastatingly for them. It would be of little consolation that they were part of a truly thrilling series. ‘The thrills that kept coming’ could be a suitable title for the series. It was Test cricket as it was meant to be — a five-act drama, with the ebb and flow of human fortunes, the twists and turns in human life, evoking a range of emotions and feelings, leading, in the end, to catharsis, while threatening to cause multiple heart failures among those lucky enough to witness this contest.

Speculation about approach

The day began with suspense and intrigue. Whether it could rain. Whether India would venture for an ambitious chase. Whether they would knuckle down and bat time, like they accomplished in Sydney. Will the pitch deteriorate further? Do the Australian bowlers have the ingenuity to do what they could not in Sydney? It was a boiling cauldron of speculation and hypothesis.

All of these questions surfaced spontaneously in different moments of the game. There were times in the match India seemed hell-bent on chasing down the lofty target, nearly 100 runs more than the highest successful fourth-innings chase at the Gabba, achieved as far back as 1951. It was akin to winning a marathon but at the pace of a sprint. Like towards the end of Shubman Gill’s melodious 91, that juncture in the game when he disdained Mitchell Starc’s ill-advised short-pitch plan. First, he unfurled the upper cut, before he pulled him for a couple of fours, then another uppercut, and then a pulled six.

Change of pace

The onslaught came almost half an hour into the second session, telegraphing their game plan to push for the chase. It was still too far away, nearly 200 runs adrift. But in Indian hearts, faint hopes had begun to blossom. Then Nathan Lyon replaced the scattergun Starc, and dislodged Gill on 91, lulling him to drive one outside the off-stump, away from his body. A thick outside edge to the slips-man was the inevitable result. Much of India’s approach seemed to hinge on who they were to send next. Ajinkya Rahane would be a defensive option, while Rishabh Pant would be an attacking ploy. It was Rahane who strode in, and he quickly dispelled notions that he would embark on a stonewalling endeavour with Cheteshwar Pujara. Rahane straightaway got into his straps, driving and cutting with purpose, pummelling Lyon over long-on for a six. He breezed to 24 off 22 before an attempted ramp brought his dismissal. By this time, Pujara, wearing blows and thuds on his body, was batting with more enterprise. The chase was on, more so with Pant in the middle.

Display of maturity

But Pant began warily. He bided his time, shelved the big strokes and realigned his focus on smuggling singles and twos, which the vast expanses of Gabba facilitated. Only two boundaries arrived in the next 13 overs, both unintended. The first was an edged four by Pant off Pat Cummins, which screamed between second slip and gully. Why a third slip was not stationed only Tim Paine could explain. Maybe, it was the fear of Pant launching a carnage as he did in Sydney. He didn’t.

The next set of four runs, four byes, would hurt and haunt Paine for a long time. Lyon had designed a bait for Pant. He brought the long-off fielder up, throwing the challenge to take the aerial route. Pant charged out, missed the ball in the flight, but Paine could not gather the ball and affect the stumping. It was akin to the moment he dropped Ravichandran Ashwin in Sydney. But this one had a deeper impact. Buoyed, Pant grew more assertive and began to find the boundaries, not in a bunch but with regular frequency. It was deja vu Sydney.

Anchor departs

Then, as in Sydney, India lost a wicket. This time Pujara, nailed in front by a devilish Cummins nip-backer. One would feel for Cummins, whose energy, craft and heart were worthy of high praise, only that one bowler alone cannot win a Test match. But Pujara’s exit, two balls into the second new ball, revived Aussie comeback hopes. The belief was strengthened by the departure of Mayank Agarwal. India were still 63 runs from the target and 14 overs from drawing the match. Washington Sundar might have racked up a half-century, Shardul Thakur behind him had stroked one himself in the first innings, but these were difficult times. The sheer pressure of the situation could eat into them.

The burden was on Pant. But he did not feel burdened. Neither did Washington. They batted normally and casually, like they would in a List A game. It was common sense batting — punishing the bad balls and quelling the good ones — until the run rate crept in excess of six. The scoreboard flashed: 50 off 48 runs. In the stands and across households in both the cricketing countries, nerves danced and jangled.

Closing act

Cummins thundered in. Pant scrambled a single off the second ball, Washington played out two dots. Australia might not win the match, but it seemed India would not win this either. But Pant and Washington had not surrendered yet. The latter shuffled across a bit and slapped the ball behind square for a six. A fluke? Perhaps not, the next ball, he sliced it over the slip cordon. Intentional? It mattered not.

The target was whittled down to a more achievable 39 off 42 balls. But Test cricket has witnessed several unbelievable collapses. Lyon has orchestrated a few himself. But the off-spinner stood helpless as Pant executed a spectacular scoop, falling over but in absolute control, over the wicketkeeper, followed by a hefty sweep. Four byes off the last over and Australia’s dreams seemed to come crashing down. The target had now come down to 24 off 36. Even at this moment, every result in the book had a scope.

Another twist seemed unlikely. But Washington bestowed one last comeback chance when he under-edged a reverse-sweep onto his stumps with India 10 runs away from the target. More jitters, more nerves, though Pant was showing none of it. He began the next over with the four but nearly spooned a catch to the unoccupied backward-point region. He ran a single, Thakur squeezed in a brace but got out next ball. But Pant was smart enough to cross and thumped the last ball of the Josh Hazlewood over through long-off to run the quickest, and the most important runs in his life. And then, at the very end, the emotions came rushing out in waves.

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