Sublime – the word encapsulates the essence of the captivating 96 overs of Test cricket in Sydney on day five. It’s not often that 62 runs off 259 balls is called heroic; it is not often a draw equals a victory; and it’s not often that world’s most incisive quartet of bowlers finds itself so helpless before the gritty dead bat on a last-day pitch. As a cricket lover, it is not often that you count balls left in the match instead of runs scored with such desperation. All of it came together on a single day at Sydney Cricket Ground.
By the time overs had trickled by, sessions closed and the day ended, men in the middle had taken us through a rollercoaster of experiences and emotions. In the end, it was a memory to treasure. There was no official win or loss here. But the draw was no less emphatic in its impact. In the context of the nature of the battle on those 22 yards the final score of 334 for 5 in a chase of 407 meant little. They were just numbers, bland and inexpressive, never telling you much about the tale of courage, grit and gumption pulsating underneath. The unbroken partnership between Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari was a story that surely can never be captured in numbers. You have to soak in the moments, every bit of them, to get it.
Will they manage to last the day? The question loomed heavy before the day began. The last time India batted more than 100 overs in the second inning of a Test match overseas was 18 years ago. A victory was only in the imagination of the incurable optimist. However, it didn’t look entirely out of place when Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill led the Indian charge towards the end of day four. But at 98 for two at the close of play and both done with their knocks, a draw was the only respectable option. Day five was expected to be all old-fashioned grind, the type that gives Test cricket a bad name among fans of testosterone-packed, thrill-a-minute shorter formats of the game.
Then came the twist. The irrepressible Rishav Pant provided it with a whirlwind 97 – a redeeming knock from someone who has had a gaping hole between potential and performance to bridge. Earlier in the day, he made victory a possibility, lifting the mood of fans. At the other end the unflappable Cheteshwar Pujara played ‘the wall’ with characteristic calm and stubbornness. Victory was still a possibility when Pant was back in the dugout. But when Pujara followed him quickly it was a match to be saved, not won.
There began the epic battle between the Vihari- Ashwin duo and the Aussies. It was not simply a test of skills, it was a test of will power and determination. The odds were stacked heavily against the Indian duo. An injured hamstring restricted Vihari from sprinting between the wickets and Ashwin was not totally fit either. Neither had been brilliant with the bat in the series. To make it worse, Ravindra Jadeja was nursing a broken thumb. With chances of him coming out next to bleak and tailenders to follow, it was up to this pair to hang on, for a full session and some more, to save the match. And Boy! Hang on they did, and how!
They took the blows on the body as they hung on manfully, negotiating the pace and bounce of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummings and Josh Hazelwood and the guile and nagging accuracy of Nathan Lyon for more than 40 overs. Runs were ignored as both threw the dead bat at anything hurled at them. It lasted for more than three hours till the Aussies threw in the towel. India had snatched a draw from the clutches of defeat. The achievement didn’t trigger wild celebration. Like Ashwin said the experience was numbing. They simply didn’t know what to make of the result. For the restless Indian fan who watched every ball and prayed at the end of each over, however, there was no such confusion. It was victory, no less.
Aggression is not always about sound, fury and giving it back in equal measure. In sports it can be about the steel within, the readiness to take the blows and rough it out. It is a mental thing. The dead bat can be as much an instrument of aggression as an explosive one. The Ashwin-Vihari show was proof that India had a good reserve of mental toughness. The icing on the cake was it came as an unintentional tribute to the original ‘Wall’ of Indian cricket – Rahul Dravid – on his birthday. The man who played the most number of deliveries in world cricket rains somewhat underappreciated in India. It is possible we read agression all wrong.
Coming back to the beauty of Test matches, here is one example they can be sublime, a quality beyond easy definitions and difficult to grasp through the cold factuality of numbers.