After India’s `Houdini Act’ in drawing the Sydney Test, I spoke briefly with India’s chief coach Ravi Shastri and asked him about the mood in the dressing room going into the last Test. “It’s never been better, the problem is to find a playing XI,” he replied. “If some of our guys don’t recover in time, I might have to get myself a pair of whites!”
Shastri’s response was only partly tongue-in-cheek. With several players bruised, battered by the short-pitched assault at Sydney, or injured otherwise, the Indian dressing room has resembled a hospital ward in the past few days. Finding 11 fit players who are also in decent form has been a severe challenge for Shastri and skipper Ajinkya Rahane.
That is perhaps the reason why the playing XI was not released on the eve of the match, as has been the practice. The team management was keeping fingers crossed that R Ashwin and Mayank Agarwal would recover and be eligible for selection for the Brisbane Test where India’s roller-coaster tour of Australia reaches a heady climax.
The two teams have waged a riveting see-saw battle over the past couple of months which has had the entire cricket world involved and agog. Australia clinched the T20 series 2-1, India bounced back by claiming the ODI series 2-1, and the Test rubber stands tantalizingly poised at 1-1 with the final match remaining.
The scoreline indicates the closeness of the contests but not the intensity of the cricket that has been witnessed. It would seem the players were put on a drip of adrenaline after each session. This is particularly true of the Test series in which fortunes have swung one way and the other massively, like an out of control pendulum.
The passage of play in all three Tests has been spine-tingling, edge-of-the-seat stuff. Skill and temperament – or the lack of — has been juxtaposed with a lot of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation and gamesmanship as the battle for supremacy reached a boiling point. “Cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties’’ is otherwise a puerile cliché, but in the context of the Tests played so far an active and apt description.
In the first Test at Adelaide, one freak hour in which India were bowled out for 36 saw them lose from a potentially winning position. It seemed then that Australia were headed for a clean sweep, with batting ace and captain Virat Kohli (paternity leave) and pace stalwart Mohamed Shami (fractured arm) returning home.
However, in the next Test at Melbourne, making light of the absence of Kohli and Shami, India turned the tables on Australia with a terrific all-round performance. Skipper Ajinkya Rahane showed the way with a sterling century and tactical sharpness, Bumrah, and Ashwin had the Aussie batsmen harried and hustled by pace and spin, and India drew level against all expectations.
In many ways, however, the third Test at Sydney was the most engaging contest though it did not produce a result.
Taut and tense, emotionally draining, but also exhilarating. It bespoke the magic of Test cricket, and within it, human excellence, failures, and frailties.
The Sydney Test makes for one of the most extraordinary and glorious chapters in Indian cricket history. Many decades after this series has ended – perhaps forever — the story of this amazing back-to-the-wall battle to salvage a draw from a near-impossible situation will be told and retold.
Of Cheteshwar Puajara digging in deep to hold the innings together on the last day, uncaring about barbs directed at his ‘slow’ strike rate. Of Rishabh Pant’s buccaneering counter-attack which brought the Aussies to their knees and raised hopes of an improbable win, albeit for a brief while.
And then the resolute, never-say-die defiance of Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari – both struggling with fitness – battling heroically for almost 44 overs to pull their side out of a deep hole, bearing hits on their bodies unflinchingly, showing stupendous concentration and commitment to stymie the opponents.
The Aussies, expecting an easy win on the last day, were reduced to haplessness and anger as the Indian batting thwarted them for six hours on the last day. Captain Tim Paine lost his cool and plunged into a petty, peevish and petulant pow-wow with Ashwin which did neither him nor the game any credit.
Master batsman Steve Smith may not have exactly wanted to ‘change’ Pant’s batting guard but the defense of such an act by several players and critics as being part of Smith’s ‘quirkiness’ can be reasonably challenged. As former England all-rounder, Derek Pringle correctly tweeted, the crease belongs to the batsmen, not fielders. Smith may not have intended to cheat, but he was still wrong.
Paine’s contrition later was welcome, but how he handles himself and the team in the last Test remains to be seen. The Aussies are desperate to regain the Border-Gavaskar trophy surrendered in 2018. Failure to win at Sydney has put him under harsh scrutiny. His captaincy is at stake, which means pressure on him has increased manifold.
What lies in store at the Gabba?
This is Australia’s bastion. Since 1988, they haven’t lost a Test on this ground. Barring young Will Pucovski, who injured himself in his debut Test at Sydney, the Aussies are also at full strength. The pitch will likely be tailormade for Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, and Mitchel Starc. Moreover, Smith, who struggled badly in the first two Tests, has rediscovered his best form.
India, in contrast, are like a corps of `walking wounded’ in a war zone. Kohli (paternity leave), Shami, Rahul, Umesh (all injured) left the tour early. Ravindra Jadeja, Jasprit Bumrah, and Vihari got hurt in Sydney and are unavailable for the last Test. Ashwin is a doubtful starter.
While the batting hasn’t suffered too badly, replacements for Vihari and Jadeja will have to be found from players consigned to the bench for poor form – Agarwal, Shaw, and Saha. The bigger dent is in the bowling. If Ashwin doesn’t play, the most experienced bowler in the attack would be Kuldeep Yadav, with three fast bowlers who have a total experience of four Tests (if Thakur is chosen) or three if Natarajan gets the nod!
On paper, it seems like an unequal battle. But given the tenor of this series, the Aussies would know that it would be folly to underestimate the Indian team which has shown guts, resilience, and ambition under the most excruciating circumstances.
In fact, given all the handicaps, Rahane and Co will actually enjoy being in a ‘nothing to lose, everything to gain’ situation. Moral victory in the series is already theirs, irrespective of the outcome at Brisbane. The pressure is entirely on Australia to prevent the Border-Gavaskar trophy from flying back to India.