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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

India take it on the chest, in the ribs, for greatest of comebacks

This was the longest fourth innings by India in 41 years, after the draw against England in 1979.

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai |
Updated: January 12, 2021 8:02:00 am
India take it on the chest, in the ribs, for greatest of comebacksR Ashwin (right), Hanuma Vihari after holding off Australia to ensure a draw in the third Test, at Sydney, Monday. (AP)

AFTER THE biggest loss in Adelaide and the grandest win in Melbourne, this Test series of extremes threw up the greatest draw in Sydney.

In the end, India’s pride was left scarless despite a broken hand, a bruised elbow, a sore hamstring, and a few dents on the chest as they hung on to finish the final day at 334 for five, leaving the four-game series at 1-1, with one more Test to go.

This was the longest fourth innings by India in 41 years, after the draw against England in 1979. On Monday, they batted 131 overs with four batsmen — Cheteshwar Pujara (77), Rishabh Pant (97), Hanuma Vihari (23 not out) and Ravi Ashwin (39 not out) — playing over 100 deliveries each.

And although the Australians perspired to conjure a result in their favour, they were left cursing in the shadows — their frustration amplified by stump microphones and later paraded by Indian fans as proud GIFs, mocking emojis, and celebratory hashtags.

For India, a day that started with thoughts of defeat was astonishingly turned around by Pant and Pujara, both fighting redemption battles of their own. During that heady second session, India even dared to dream of a victory. But after those two fell, an injured Vihari, who was playing for his career, and Ashwin, who loves a good sporting brawl, made a draw feel like a win.

Would an Indian team of the past have battled so many injuries with such a talented and tenacious back-up group putting up a stirring fight like this? The jury is out on that one. But there is no question about the enormity of this achievement, particularly in the chaotic backdrop of the game.

The trips to hospitals were punctuated by visits to the match referee to combat racist taunts from the crowd. The evenings were spent on the table of the masseur and in huddles to draft a plan to put the racists out of the ground.

The nights carried murmurs from the Indian board about a possible boycott of Brisbane, the venue of the final Test.

The days were spent tussling with the snarling Australians on the field.

“Welcome to the greatest of the comebacks,” was how Australian motormouth skipper Tim Paine welcomed Pant to the crease at the fall of Ajinkya Rahane, who departed in the second over of the day. It was a deliberate sledge since Pant had been hit on the elbow in the first innings. But the young Indian wicketkeeper kept quiet and walked over to chat with Pujara.

But soon, Pant’s bat began to do the talking. He went on a rousing attack, launching himself into off-spinner Nathan Lyon. He didn’t get carried away though, as he played the pacers on merit, driving and pulling as per the situation. Against Lyon, he was an overwhelming force; against the pacers, he was methodical.

Pujara, meanwhile, negotiated the situation perfectly. He played his shots, rotated the strike and defended solidly. Runs came in a flood but Pant fell and so did Pujara, leaving India in a corner at the tea break. With Jadeja’s left thumb broken and bandaged, the pursuit of a win evaporated and the possibility of a draw, too, began to get clouded.

Ashwin, his wife would later tweet, was unable to “stand straight” in the morning, ridden by a “terrible back” pain. He “couldn’t bend down” to tie his shoelaces. But the game hung on his back as he went to join a hamstrung Vihari. Together, ball by ball, they rebuilt the innings. The stump microphone caught Ashwin advising his partner in Tamil: “Let’s play 10 balls each”. By the end, it turned into a playful Tamil cry of, “aadu mama, aadu mama! (play on, man; play on, man!).

Until that phase, as the ball ricocheted off Ashwin’s chest and bounded off Vihari’s ribs, the Australians tried their best — the bowlers with the ball, the fielders with the lip. But finally, it became clear that they had given up when Paine started to talk about the next Test, the finale of the series, in a venue known to help fast bowlers. “Can’t wait to get you to the Gabba (stadium in Brisbane),” he told Ashwin. The exchange was loud enough to be caught up by the pitch mic. “Can’t wait to get you to India, it’ll be your last series,” Ashwin retorted.

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