If anyone in the future looks for the meaning of bravery on the cricket field, they will need to have a look at the events of January 11, 2021, at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Rishabh Pant with a bruised elbow, Ashwin Ravichandran with a dodgy back and Hanuma Vihari on one leg made the 4.15 am alarm in India worth a ring. The trio, along with a usually defiant Cheteshwar Pujara, put their bodies on the line to add another chapter in a cricket-tragic tale. Maybe with these efforts, Pant might get a bit more respect, Ashwin a bit more love and Vihari a bit more surety about his place in the playing XI.
But, as India kept fighting, two recent rule changes raised some eyebrows on both sides. The first being the rule change made in 2017 about allowing a keeper substitute and the other, which came into effect in 2011, of not allowing a runner for an injured batsman.
Let’s start with the keeper-sub first because of which India could enjoy the best of both worlds. They got a better keeper in Wriddhiman Saha and a better batsman in Pant to contribute for them. It was in the 85th over of India’s first innings on the third day that Pant was hit on his left elbow by a rising ball from Pat Cummins. He continued to bat albeit with a lot of discomfort.
When Australia came out to bat, it was Saha who took the gloves. Now, this wouldn’t have happened if the rule had not been amended in 2018. The earlier rule would have meant that with the combination India had opted for, only perhaps Vihari could have donned the gloves. He had played as specialist keeper before, during a Ranji Trophy game between Hyderabad and Himachal Pradesh. In that match, he kept wickets for 152.5 overs before batting for 621 minutes for a 419-ball 263.
But with the new rule India could get Saha, among the best in the world with the gloves, to keep for 87 overs. He took three catches, the most notable being the one down leg-side where he dived full-length to dismiss Marnus Labuschagne off Navdeep Saini. Would Vihari have caught that? Maybe or maybe not.
When Saha took the gloves, it was all within the rules and when Pant came out to bat at the fall of India’s third wicket with the score being 102/3 in 35.4 overs, it was still within the rules. However, there were murmurs about how someone unfit to keep for almost a whole day can be fit to bat just two-and-a-half hours into India’s innings.
These murmurs started getting louder as Pant started cutting, pulling, driving and thrashing the Australian bowlers all over the park.
Australian cricket writer Peter Lalor was among those and he fumed on SEN Radio.
“This Rishabh Pant thing, this is just rubbish. How on earth can a bloke be not fit to wicketkeep and you just happen to have an even better wicketkeeper waiting in the cupboard? So the better wicketkeeper goes out there, does the job, pulls off a catch that I reckon nine times out of 10 Rishabh Pant would have dropped, and then suddenly Rishabh Pant is fit enough to bat. They’re basically playing with 12 players. Rubbish. If you can hold a bat, you can wear a pair of gloves and fumble a few balls like he does on occasion. That’s my point, I find this really ridiculous,”
Some others in the Australian press said that Pant had been allowed an off-day in middle of the Test, while others questioned how he was batting with no bandage or protection on the injured arm.
Now, these are valid questions. Barring a substitute for concussion, rules don’t allow the substitute player to do the primary job of the injured player. So if a batsman injures himself while fielding, the substitute is only allowed to field and not bat. Similarly for a bowler, the sub can’t do the primary job.
There have been some demands for a change in this regard, especially after the first Test between South Africa and Sri Lanka where injuries to Dhananjaya de Silva, Kasun Rajitha and Lahiru Kumara reduced the game to a bit of a joke.
While the intentions of bringing the keeper-sub rule might have been noble, the ICC might have to tweak it if more teams keep benefiting from it in the manner that India did. Perhaps, they could make it more like a concussion sub where once you have decided to sit out, you cannot make a comeback.
But no runner for Vihari
On the other hand, Vihari pulled his hamstring while batting on 3 off 27 balls. Although he was able to stand, he was not even in a position to walk, forget running. At the end of the day he remained unbeaten having batted for 161 balls and limped into the dressing room almost having to use his bat as a crutch. Prior to 2011, he could have called for a runner and continued to score. But with no runner available, there were numerous times when he and Ashwin chose not to take a run.
Who knows if Vihari might have played an innings like VVS Laxman did at the P Sara Oval in Colombo against Sri Lanka in 2010, where he batted with Virender Sehwag as runner after suffering from back spasms.
Who also knows what might have happened if there was no keeper-sub rule and Vihari had to keep for 87 or more overs. Who knows if Vihari’s hamstring would have survived 522 squats, and dives and jumps.
January 11, 2021, is now part of history and these two rule-changes were fascinating sub-plots in the epic battle of Sydney.