For the briefest of moments Virat Kohli grimaced in pain, furiously rubbing the part of the elbow hit by Josh Hazlewood’s lifter from short of a length. But Kohli was quickly back laughing, sharing something funny with Cheteshwar Pujara. It perfectly captured the pervading tenseness of the simmering contest, it was no place or time to show pain or agony, or brood or contemplate for he and Pujara were in the middle of an absorbing battle, a battle as much of wits as skills.
Kohli then looked around, there was gloom all over. Menacing dark clouds dwelled over the arena, resisting the breeze, and mirroring the immutable anxiety that had wrapped the stadium. So nervous was the passage of play that no one snoozed or yawned, or left their seats. A few meandered to refill their bubble-drained glasses, a few stretched their legs over the chair, nibbling tarts and sandwiches. But no one took their eyes off the game, not for one ball.
Yet, when one skims through the bare facts of the span between the dismissals of KL Rahul and Pujara, one feels nothing eye-popping or teeth-cringing, or even worthy of a coffee-table debate. Rather a banal, tedious passage of 74 runs off 199 balls, interspersed with prolonged drought of runs and nothing remotely spectacular, but if it still hooked the audience to their seats, it meant the quality of the cricket played out in front of their eyes was something elevating, and in the end gratifying. It certainly was, a tribute to the working-class virtues of the game, than the much-eulogised artistic or assertive traits of the game.
Here was a pair of batsmen on defiance — gritting out, battling the variegated fears swirling around them. The fear of the pitch, when it would shake off its slumber, the fear of misjudgement, the margin of error was minuscule, and beyond it the most primal fear of a batsman, the fear of getting out. The latter they could ill afford, one more wicket from 8 for 2 would have shoved India down from the brink to the gallows. How they conquered their fears and steered India to a position of respectability formed the heart of the narrative. Here was a pack of bowlers bristling with aggression — wearing their aggression on their sleeves, eager to shut out the swelling retinue of critics, keen to demonstrate their prowess, desperate to redeem their pride. How they battled to restore their pride formed an equally compelling narrative. You take out one of these two, and the narrative falls apart like a pack of cards.
The story began with a flurry of boundaries. Kohli ticked off with a sumptuous on-drive, Pujara leant into a glorious cover-drive, Kolhi then tore into an erring Josh Hazlewood with three sumptuously-timed boundaries, each worthy of being made into coaching manual pictorials, the economy of movement, the alignment of the body, the dextrousness of those wrists and the stillness of his head. Runs came in a haste and it seemed that the Indians were intent on counter-attacking, meeting fire with fire. They purred on to 38 in 10 overs after their early shambles. Suddenly, there was a sense of heightened expectancy that something spectacular (or silly) was waiting to unfold, especially as Kohli seemed in a punishing mood and whose positivity had rubbed onto Pujara. The former, though, was utterly relaxed, chuckling with Pujara, and bantering with the fielders. As if nothing was amiss.
That was when Australia decided to ring in the changes, and the match entered a nervy passage of play. They unleashed Pat Cummins, considered something of a Kohli-kryptonite, having nailed him twice in four innings, from one end. And from the other, trundled in Nathan Lyon. Kohli and Pujara read the game intuitively and through the lines, comprehended that Australia were playing a clever double-bluff. Both Cummins and Lyon are predominantly attacking bowlers, but they wouldn’t embrace forthright aggression, rather alternated their roles.
A couple of overs Cummins would go full-throttle like a racehorse, bowl fuller at frenetic pace before he transforms to a short-of-length-ball peddling workhorse. Likewise, Lyon would switch from a sprinter to marathoner, whereas he rushed through his overs at one stage, at others he would slow his pace down, give the ball more air and extract turn and bounce. When Cummins was fatigued, Hazlewood returned and restored his shoebox length. You feel you’ve got a measure of a bowler and his design, but you haven’t. You think you are in control, but you aren’t.
At other times, Kohli would have resorted to batting normally, or even attack a bit more to tilt the scale in his balance. But here, he was in a position where he had to be error-proof and risk-free. A couple of wickets and India would plunge deep into the gorge, from where it would need a miracle to come back into the match. He shed any intention to attack the bowlers, which is against his nature, but the circumstances warranted caution — a match in balance, a series for the taking. These are critical moments India have lost in the past, especially overseas. But no longer does he want those nightmares to repeat or be recreated. It might have been easier for Pujara, for caution is his default mode. But even he wrapped a web of caution around him.
Being restrained on the wicket could have backfired, for it risked the possibility of an unplayable, a brute rearing up the surface or a carpet-scuttling grubber. For, in the end, you’ll have neither many runs on the board nor wickets in your hand. But then embracing risk was even riskier, not least when Cummins and Lyon were nagging more than stifling, diligent more than dazzling. In the next 16 overs, they managed only as many runs. But they survived — survival, then, was not one of their outlets, rather the only outlet.
How they survived is a different story. Several times did Cummins beat Kohli, Hazlewood struck him on his elbow, Lyon missed his off-bail by a coat of varnish. Similarly, Hazlewood teased and taunted Pujara’s edge, even cajoled it once, but it fell short of the slips. It could have been worse had the pitch deteriorated, which surprisingly it didn’t, for which Indians have to thank the clouds for keeping the sun away.
As it happens in Perth, it’s the merciless sun that widens the cracks while the dew and drizzle would help the pitch bind together. Not just decelerate the cracking process but also help rebind the cracks. To reproduce curator Brett Sipthorpe’s metaphor, “the pitch contracts and expands like we breathe”. Whatever the science be, it was Indian batsmen’s pragmatism that held fort.
The sun finally waded through the clouds and winked, bringing Ajinkya Rahane and a deluge of runs. Rahane began just like his T20I debut at Chester-le-Street, in manic fashion, slashing, swinging, slogging, upper-cutting and pulling the bowlers. Forget calculated assault, it was mindless mayhem. It broke the tedium, but without the tedium of the middle session, India would have been down the alley. The blow on his elbow would hurt Kohli when he wakes up on Sunday. But it’s the scars of battle that remain with the pride of the soldier.