It wouldn’t be amiss if you were shaking your head in disbelief as the Sydney Test ended in a draw. It was the kind of result that you would’ve hoped for at the start of day five, as an India fan, even though you would’ve feared that reality might have very different plans.
When Australia finally conceded the draw six balls before the scheduled close of play, India still had five wickets in hand and the unbroken sixth-wicket partnership between Hanuma Vihari and Ashwin Ravichandran was worth 62 off 256 balls.
As Vihari and Ashwin trudged off the field at the end of the day, they had gentle smiles on their faces. No fist pumps. Just gentle smiles, visible relief and a careful walk back to the dressing room because they couldn’t do more even if they tried. Both batsmen had survived injuries (Vihari had a hamstring problem and Ashwin was dealing with a back issue), a bouncer barrage, dropped chances and one of the best bowling attacks in world cricket for over three hours to earn a draw that will go down in the history books.
Day five was a story of defiance. It was a day to take the short ball on the body; a day to throw the form book in the bin; a day to show guts; a day to show character; a day for heroes to stand up and be counted and the Indian team responded to the call of duty by doing all that and more.
The backs-to-the-wall effort was, by a fair margin, the longest India have batted to draw a Test match against Australia, at 131 overs. The most overs they’d managed previously to last in a fourth innings to earn a draw against Australia was 89.2 – at the SCG in January 2015.
But when they lost skipper Ajinkya Rahane (4) in the second over of the day, it seemed like the writing was pretty much on the wall. Nobody expected them to last the day. At most, we thought, they might make it to tea.
However, in a fight against the odds, the Indian team managed a draw whose value will perhaps rival that of a win. Rishabh Pant came in (not because India wanted to go for a win but simply because they thought a left-right combination would be better) and took his chances. He was dropped twice by Tim Paine but the manner in which he shrugged off those chances to attack Australia kept India in the hunt for not only a draw but also a win.
It made Australia bowl differently because they knew that if Pant kept going for a while, he really could take the match away from them and this was best illustrated when Paine had five fielders on the boundary line in the last over before lunch for the left-hander.
He kept at them, attacking without fear just as Cheteshwar Pujara, at the other end, offered a resolute dead bat to everything that came his way. There was no talk of strike-rates, rather the focus shifted to less complicated things. Focus on each ball, survive and don’t even think about the result. It was the perfect partnership in a sense; a song of fire and ice.
How did they do it?
Pujara’s fourth innings average is 26. But he found a way to stay there long enough to make the Aussies start to doubt themselves.
For most of the day, former Australian cricketer Shane Warne, in the commentary box, kept insisting that there were demons in the wicket and for most of the day, India kept them at bay with a display that spoke volumes of their guts and grit.
Pant’s attacking innings was only one part of the equation because Pujara batted time at the other end which was just as important a factor. They were the sword and shield that kept the chances for all four results alive. It kept Australia on their toes. It kept the spirits in the Indian dressing room high.
Then, when Pant and Pujara fell within 22 runs of each other, Australia felt they could see the finish line. But Vihari and Ashwin put up a brave front.
Vihari pulled his hamstring while going for a single. Ashwin, because of a back problem, wasn’t even able to sit in the dressing room. He had watched the entire Pujara-Pant partnership on his feet. To add to that, their batting form in the series had been poor.
But between them, they found a necessary equilibrium.
When Ashwin had to face a barrage of bouncers just after tea, the duo calmly switched ends. Vihari, the more accomplished batsman, dealt with as much pace as he could while Ashwin, who is more comfortable against spin, dealt with Lyon.
By the end, as broken as they were, Vihari and Ashwin managed to break Australia’s spirit and that is a huge accomplishment. This is a bowling attack that has dominated India in recent times and to absorb everything that they could throw at the batsmen was an immense show of resolve that will not be forgotten anytime soon.
India’s partnerships in the second innings:
71(133) – RG Sharma 39(69) and Shubman Gill 31(64)
21(49) – CA Pujara 8(20) and RG Sharma 13(29)
10(33) – CA Pujara 5(15) and AM Rahane 4(18)
148(265) – CA Pujara 45(146) and RR Pant 97(118)
22(55) – CA Pujara 19(24) and GH Vihari 3(31)
62*(259) – R Ashwin 39(128) and GH Vihari 20(130)
To examine a team through the lens of an individual match can feel like an arbitrary exercise but this is a side that, through all its ups and down, doesn’t lose its spirit. We’ve seen them bounce back from defeats. We’ve seen them conquer the odds or as is the case today, defy them.
Under Rahane, they might not say much but they sure mean every word they say. For now, every Indian fan and player is probably saying ‘Bring on Brisbane!’.