No one commiserated with Nathan Lyon. As the Indian players celebrated their historic win — first time they had started an Australian tour with a win — Lyon was hunched on the ground, in as much as grief as regret. The day before, he’d exhorted his teammates: “It’s time to be heroes, to be remembered by our children and grandchildren.” There was no more an Australia superhero as Lyon in this Test — he bowled 60 overs, picked eight wickets, scored a feisty unconquered 38, and fluttered hopes of an unlikely Australian victory. Yet, he looked shattered.
The man at the other end, the man whose wicket the Indians celebrated, Josh Hazlewood, kept staring at the ground, numb and speechless, wondering how close they actually were to scripting what could have passed into Wisden all-time thrillers. A 31-run-defeat is not what one would actually consider a suspenseful contest, but unless one had watched the match, one wouldn’t realise how close it was.
When Hazlewood walked out to bat, Australia were still 64 runs adrift of surpassing India. In commentary, Shane Warne had already pulled his blazers on for the post-match engagements. In the slip cordon, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane had begun to chuckle. Rishabh Pant was yelping at Ravichandran Ashwin: “Ashu bhai, jaldi, jadli…” Half the spectators were filing out of the turnstiles answering in the negative to stewards’ query of whether they would be returning.
But then they suddenly turned around to the crack of a stroke. Lyon had just dismissively flicked Jasprit Bumrah through midwicket. They had now begun to hope against hope. Australians, both the crowd and the players, don’t throw in the towel too soon. That’s why John Arlott coined the term Australianism.
The Indian fielders, with each ball and each passing stroke of assurance, began to feel a trifle uneasy. The first sign was to depute fielders on the rope when Lyon, the No. 10, was batting. But India have been so chastened by lower-order batsmen in the past that they didn’t want to risk a victory. What followed in the next half an hour was not nail-biting stuff, but heart-pounding drama. No one spoke much to each other, even the ragged red ball wasn’t talking.
But then Ishant Sharma pinged Lyon in front, with a sharp, bending delivery, but even before he could turn around for the appeal, the echo of umpire Kumara Dharmasena’s “no ball” rung in his ears. Ishant stood gutted, searching the screens for replays. Nothing flashed. The replays later showed it would have clipped the outside of the leg-stump, hence an umpire’s call, and if Australia had conjured a miracle the no-ball would have come to haunt him. Ishant was so upset that he didn’t celebrate the win, Kohli revealed later. “He was feeling guilty after the match,” he said. That was the time when the Indian players began to feel a little edgy, as if they’re conspired to lose. And Kohli has been on the other end last time, when India lost by 48 runs despite a Kohli classic.
Shortly, even the left-handed Hazlewood, who began shakily against Ashwin started to look entrenched at the crease, striding forward with surety, jumping back with assurance, and occasionally punishing the loose deliveries. A shiver of fear might have slivered through some of the Indian spectators. Most had grown up hearing and seeing the famed Australian fightback. Were they seeing another epic unfold?
Suspense hung thick in the air, forgetting nearly that they were into the last over of the extended session, as the last pair was batting. Then came Ashwin, and off the fifth ball he induced an edge off Hazlewood, sparking celebrations. At the boundary, coach Ravi Shastri swished the air and clutched his assistants. But Lyon was still hunched on the ground. And there was no one to commiserate with him.
At the lunch break, in the broadcast corridor, legendary ABC commentator Jim Maxwell bumped into an old friend of his, who asked him whether they can have a drink in the afternoon. “No, I want to see them bat.” Puzzled, the friend asked him: “Why, you think they’ll win?” Maxwell replied: “I see a glimmer of hope.”
He later explained the reasons: “The pitch has flattened out, the bowlers will be tired and if Tim (Paine) can hang around, we might.” His friend just smirked, as if wondering the 75-year-old was out his mind. So must have felt most of the spectators and television pundits, for Australia were 186/6, stretching into their Oval graveyard.
Their last hope was Shaun Marsh, who was out for 60. He had batted with a rarely-seen will and judgement, but had an instinctive poke at an incisive Bumrah delivery, angled in and shaping away off the seam, just enough to sow doubt in Marsh’s mind. Australia were 169 runs away from the target. Surely, not this time.
Paine was the sole man who could steer them home. He was batting with a broken finger, battling the pain and pressure. But couldn’t resist the urge to pull a Bumrah delivery that was quicker and bouncier. It was an effort ball, another example of the firepower Indian bowlers possess.
By then, the Aussie fate was almost sealed. Or so they thought. Shane Warne and his colleague were drifting to Peter Russell-Clarke’s television cookery show — it began with Rishabh Pant’s proximity to the world-record of 11 dismissals jointly-held by AB de Villiers and Jack Russell. The English wicket-keeper led to the other Russell. It’s as if they didn’t want to brood on Australia’s failings.
But their two firebrand fast bowlers out there — Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins — were not drifting. Starc was edgy throughout, but Cummins was purposeful and patient. The clarity he showed in dealing was worthy of not only praise but also a lesson for his batting peers. There was no indecision about him. He would stretch forward and meet the fuller balls — of course it helps if you’re a six-feet-four —and the marginally short ones he would fend off the back-foot. At the same time, he played a couple of gorgeous drives straight and through the covers. Cummins and Starc kept India waiting for 16 overs.
India didn’t panic. Maybe, they hoped that eventually one of them, especially Starc, would do something silly. After a bouncer, Shami slipped in a full, wide ball, which Starc couldn’t resist having a fling at. A classical lower-order batsman’s dismissal — Pant’s record-equalling 11th pouch, and Warne reverted to Russell-Clarke.
But Cummins wasn’t giving up, Australia still fighting. With a spirited Lyon, he magnified Australia’s hopes, until Cummins departed, which excited Kohli so much that he banged the ball furiously onto the ground. By then, even the eternally romantic Maxwell had burned his hopes.
As Lyon was crossing the boundary rope, the Oval curator Damian Hough and a couple of the groundsmen ran to him and wore an arm around him. Later Hough said what the whole of Australia might have been feeling, “Lyon deserved to be a hero.”
He though is happy with the pitch: “A classic Test match, that lasted (technically) till the last session. Proud of it, though Australia lost it. You Indians have a great team this time,” said Hough, who now has to ready the pitch for the footy season.
It was a similar hurt-but-proud vibe that Paine conveyed at the press conference. He said: “Today was a nice snapshot of the way we want to go about it. We fought really hard and never gave in, you don’t have to talk rubbish and carry on like a pork chop to prove that.” Those same lines past Indian skippers used to rattle out. The roles have reversed. Paine speaking like Indian captains and Lyon leaving like a tragic hero, like Kohli was four years ago at the same ground.
One person who could relate to Lyon’s pain was Kohli. Four years ago, he had done everything humanly possible to put India on the brink of an improbable victory, but left the Oval in regret, if not tears. He recollected that at the post-match press conference. “I feel so relieved to be on the other side of it, last time we lost by some 48 runs in a tense match. But now we beat them by 31 runs. It’s just unbelievable,” he said.
That was Kohli’s first match leading the team, standing in for the injured MS Dhoni, who retired later in the same series. “ There is enough reason to regret things, but at the same time you have to look at the positives. It’s the kind of positive cricket we want to play.” The Adelaide script was to haunt him again — India losing close encounters, despite playing a bold brand of cricket. Maybe, Adelaide is a sign of the script changing. Kohli reminds it’s the beginning of the series. But one can’t argue with the self-belief of this team.
Later in the day, Kohli was seen hugging and chatting with Lyon when they were packing off from the ground. At last, there was someone to commiserate with Lyon.