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Thursday, March 04, 2021

In latest fightback for India, Chennai flair and Palghar grit

At stumps, the home team were 21 for no loss and a game that seemed to be swaying towards Australia now hung in balance.

Written by Sandip G | New Delhi |
Updated: January 18, 2021 7:44:32 am
In latest fightback for India, Chennai flair and Palghar gritShardul Thakur and Washington Sundar during the India-Australia Test in Brisbane, Sunday. (AP)

The further these Indian cricketers are pushed to the ropes, the stronger they bounce back.

On Day 3 of the fourth Test, the series level at 1-1, India slipped and staggered to 186 for six but rallied spectacularly to finish their first innings at 336. At the heart of their latest feat was the unflustered seventh-wicket stand of 123 runs between Washington Sundar, a 21-year-old debutant, and Shardul Thakur, a 29-year-old one-Test tailender, that limited Australia’s lead to 33.

At stumps, the home team were 21 for no loss and a game that seemed to be swaying towards Australia now hung in balance.

For India, Sunday was important because late-order flourishes, of late, had become a rarity — the last time a seventh-wicket pair got a century-partnership abroad was in 2018. In Brisbane, not only did Thakur (67) and Washington (62) break India’s seventh-wicket record at the Gabba, they did so by moving past India’s all-time great Test all-rounders, Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar.

It was a throwback to those days when India had several multi-skilled players who batted deep with the tail wagging hard. Washington also broke a 110-year-old record when he registered the highest score by a visiting player batting at No.7 on debut in Australia.

Washington and Thakur are an odd couple — the Chennai wonderkid coached by his father at their T Nagar Academy and the late-bloomer from Palghar whose daily journey to the Mumbai maidans would see him wake up at 3.30 am and spend close to 7 hours in a day on the local trains.

Given the doggedness and courage this team has mustered since the 36 all out in Adelaide, they neither flinched nor surrendered. They were like a pair of choirboys putting in the shift of the chief chorister and belting out hymns without an out-of-place tune. Thakur demonstrated his utility; Washington busted a few stereotypes around him.

Since building a reputation as a crafty new-ball wielding off-spinner in T20Is, Washington’s batting aptitude has been barely highlighted. Worse, he has not even played first-class cricket in the last two years.

Fortunately, Washington did not fall into the trappings of stereotypes. “People who have watched Washington in the IPL and T20s have the perception that he is an off-spinner who can bat a bit. In fact, I would say that he is 70 per cent batsman and 30 per cent bowler. That’s how good he is,” says his father Sundar.

Sundar always dreamt of his son to be a batsman, a Test batsman, before junior coaches recognised that his natural loop and height would be harnessed if he were a spinner. But he never forgot his batting. “Batting is what we discuss at home. We have a small academy where we practise a lot, and he will just keep batting,” says the father-coach.

Sundar’s favourite cricketer was W V Raman, and hence he modelled his son’s stance on the former India opener. There is an economy of movement and a languid extension of the arms when he drives. He seldom stabs or swipes at the ball, and in his 144-ball 62, he hardly looked like someone who has not batted in a first-class game for 26 months.

The six off Nathan Lyon might have been the most breathtaking of his strokes, but it was his driving that stood out. It’s a technique honed by practising and playing on mat surfaces back home. It seems risk-fraught, but he rides the bounce masterfully, the transfer of weight is seamless. His father had wanted Washington to be a Test batsman; in

Brisbane on Sunday he was one.

In contrast, Thakur has no cricketing pedigree. Based at Palghar, over 100 km from Mumbai, his family is into farming. Undeterred by the body-crushing daily commuting, he opted for the same school in Kandivali, a Mumbai suburb, as Rohit Sharma. Both share a common coach, Dinesh Lad, and have honed their skills on their school’s cement pitch. Today, he played a few strokes that would have made even Sharma proud.

He probably essayed the stroke of his life when he clamped down his front foot and smacked Pat Cummins on the rise through covers. English commentator Nick Knight, on air during India’s fightback, would call it the “shot of the series”. He then leapt out of the crease to heave Lyon over long-on to complete his first Test half-century with aplomb. The scattered Sunday crowd rose to applaud him. Even the Australian fielders, tired and frustrated, were seen clapping their hands in appreciation.

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