From a playing eleven that had already lost so much in terms of talent even before taking the field, could there be anything substantial left to be extracted? It was with this quandary that a depleted Indian squad – more a motley crew than a well lubricated fighting machine – gamely lined up alongside their much vaunted hosts at the Sydney Cricket Ground for the third test Match in the ongoing Border Gavaskar Trophy. When the spin of the coin too did not go the way of the visitors, the universal consensus was that they were in for a long haul. But four grueling, unforgiving and thankless days, unwelcome injuries, and swirling controversies later, Rahane’s men, were not just standing toe to toe with Paine’s Aussies but also slugging it out with a pugilist’s resilience, that would have received unabashed approbation from the slayer of Goliath even. Factors both intrinsic and extraneous has conspired and contrived in attempting to thwart the Indians from putting up any formidable resistance. While Steve Smith, Will Pucovski and Cameron Green wielded their willows with gay abandon, a bunch of visibly egregious, possibly drunk, and definitely uncivil spectators – whose presence besmirched the very image of the game and tarnished the reputation of the venue – directed a tirade of abuse at Mohammed Siraj, who was manning the boundary line in one part of the field. This was a man who was passing through an extraordinarily poignant stage in not just his fledgling career, but also in his personal life. He had missed his father’s funeral, courtesy the stringent regulations imposed by the “bio-secure bubble”, a concomitant to the COVID-19 pandemic. While Siraj and the Indians stood by a firm conviction that the slurs aimed were racial in their hue and colour, Cricket Australia in tandem with the New South Wales law enforcement authorities launched an investigation into the matter. The results are yet to come, at the time of this writing.
It was against this unenviable backdrop of events that the dour Cheteshwar Pujara strode out to the middle with skipper Ajinkya Rahane in tow, with India at 98-2 (requiring 407 for an improbable win), on a bright fifth day morning. As if getting to grips with the unsettling experience of being abused was not enough, India now had to negotiate the devil that was an uneven bounce. This devil’s appetite would be whetted in no small measure by a frighteningly even world class bowling attack. Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins and Lyon, in addition to each being an amanuensis to line and length were also devotees of pace and disciples of deception. When Ajinkya Rahane departed in the second over of the day, one could not have faulted the prophets of doom and naysayers for making a beeline to the betting counters. Enter Rishabh Pant. A feisty character whose very game plan is singularly based on the motto of “rile and let rile”, Pant decided that the restrictions on the number of spectators imposed by COVID-19 would not prevent him from laying out a dizzying exhibition of stroke play, the likes of which are rarely witnessed with regular frequency. Nursing an elbow that was lucky enough not to have been broken after taking a nasty blow in the first innings, Pant displayed audacity and artistic flair in equal measure. Sashaying down the track to the spinner and slashing the fast bowler over third man and deep backward point, the young Indian wicket keeper took the attack to the opposition. By the time a gob smacked Aussie attack came to terms with the damage inflicted by the southpaw, he was within a scoring shot of a century. A rash shot, (rash for the armchair critic, but a perfectly understandable item in the Pant handbook of cricket), resulted in Pant falling short of a ton by just 3 runs. However, he had infused a belligerent surge of optimism in the Indian camp. All along the rock called Pujara was standing firm, impervious to pace and impartial to spin.
More ill luck was in store for India. In going for a quick single Hanuma Vihari, arguably playing for his place in the squad, pulled a hamstring that rendered him more or less immobile. When Pujara finally departed, castled by Hazelwood for a typically gutsy 77, the writing was on the Indian wall. The fat lady was in all probability, preparing to hail a cab that would take her to the auditorium. With Jadeja nursing a fractured thumb, and only the pacemen to follow, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable collapse would commence.
However, a pair of walking wounded had other ideas. According to a tweet posted by Ravichandran Ashwin’s wife, the day following the match, her husband had tweaked his back in such a bad fashion that it was an excruciating endeavour for him to bend down to tie his bootlaces even. But no physical detriment would deter these two incapacitated men on this particular day. Like the preternaturally bold Spartans of Leonidas, the duo buckled down and countered all that was hurled at them. And boy did the Aussies hurl! From a barrage of short pitched deliveries (perfectly legitimate), indulging in intimidatory tactics such as when Matthew Wade impudently squared up to Ashwin, (not crossing the line though), to throwing the ball back at Vihari on a couple of occasions when he was well within his crease (behaviour of frustrated juveniles), the Aussies tried it all. The brute pace of the deliveries and the spite off the pitch made the batsmen squirm and shift. While Vihari standing on one leg, with a saintly demeanour, looked accomplished, Ashwin, especially against the pacemen was like a cat on a hot tin roof. He fended, fenced, ducked and hopped. But all that hopping served to embellish the hoping that stirred in the hearts, minds and imagination of millions of people watching from thousands of miles away and egging him on from the confines of their living rooms. Vihari was never hamstrung in his intent. Ashwin would let only his bat and not his back dictate terms and talk.
And when these, tactics ranging from the banal to the boorish didn’t work, the Australian Captain decided to take matters into his own gloved hands. These were the hands that were unusually prone to blunders in this Test Match. Having dropped a couple of edges, Tim Paine was now resolute that he would drop his dignity too. An insistent volley of snide chatter escaped the skipper’s lips as he engaged Ashwin in some unparliamentary chatter. Even though, at one point, he gave back what he received, Ashwin was mostly an Odysseus who tied himself to the mast of his ship so as to prevent himself from being distracted by the songs of the Sirens. Although, I am sure that when it came to melody. Paine’s men who formed the close in cordon are incapable of holding a candle vis-à-vis the Sirens.
It would be unwise to lend dignity to the remarks of Tim Paine by discussing his verbal assault, let alone reproducing it here. Even though he was gentlemanly enough to admit his idiocy with more than just a hint of remorse, it does not detract from the ugly and ungainly conduct he resorted to, to dislodge Ashwin from the crease. Putting one’s limb on the line to ensuring that one’s nation comes out unscathed, if not victorious in any sporting encounter is an indisputable badge of honour for every sportsman. It is also his/her beholden duty. Tim Paine should have been the most appropriate individual to realise this since it was one of his own countrymen who braved every insurmountable hurdle from heat to exhaustion, to the calibre of his opponents, in engineering to produce one of the greatest ever outcomes in a game of cricket. The late great Dean Jones would, in his inimitable candour, have put Paine in his place from the confines of the commentator’s box if he was to have borne witness to the perfectly avoidable fiasco.
When the dust finally settled and the resolution of the Aussies was broken, one over remained in the day’s play. When Tim Paine grudgingly shook hands with Vihari and Ashwin, India still had 5 wickets in hand. One of the Australian channels put up a caption asserting India had pulled off a Great escape. Nonsense! It was the other way around. It was the Aussies who had their lucky stars to thank. The best bowling line up plying their wares today had totally failed, on their home turf to dislodge two visiting batsmen, one of whom was fighting for form, while the other was fighting for his future. The fact that both of them were visibly injured further adds to the import and gravity of this futility. Ashwin and Vihari were literally out on a limb, and yet had managed to successfully evade close to or even over 250 deliveries. They had played out the equivalent of an entire innings constituting a one day international, but without the attendant glitz and glamour. For Tim Paine who condescendingly asked Ashwin how many IPL franchises had turned him down, Vihari and Ashwin had formed their very own IPL – Indian Perseverance League. An IPL to enter which, Paine needs to demonstrate a gargantuan degree of talent and skill, which he is clearly and unfortunately short of.
I realise now that the eleven indomitable spirits who took the field at Sydney were neither besieged by quandary nor besotted with conundrums. It was I who was being apprehensive of their abilities in a genuinely fond manner. While I am more than euphoric to be proved wrong, nothing warms the innermost cockles of my heart more than the fact that they made the Australians eat humble pie in their own back yard. While it might have been Ashwin who was hopping in the middle for a wee bit of time, it was ultimately the Kangaroos who were left hopping mad and bewildered when time was called at the Sydney Cricket Ground.