The last time India batted as long and with as much character to draw a Test was in 1979. Sunil Gavaskar made 221
Coaches are fond of saying that there is no substitute for proper technique in cricket. But there has always been a substitute: a large heart. You can either step out and drive a fast bowler in pursuit of victory or stay back and take blows on the body for a draw.
That at one point in the Sydney Test India were going for a win is testimony to the character of this relatively young team. Then they had the resilience to hang on for a nail-biting draw. The triumph of hope over probability makes sporting contests memorable.
The Oval analogy
The last time India batted as long and with as much character to draw a Test was in 1979. Sunil Gavaskar made 221. But otherwise that Oval chase and this Sydney one are remarkably similar.
At 366 for one (chasing 438), India were within sniffing distance of a stunning win. When the second wicket fell, skipper Venkatraghavan promoted a young Kapil Dev in order to do what Rishabh Pant did in Sydney. That change backfired, this one succeeded up to a point. Such are the vagaries of the game. Venkatraghavan lost his captaincy, Ajinkya Rahane is being hailed as a hero. Success and failure are often separated by a hair’s breadth.
After the match, Ravichandran Ashwin’s wife Preethi tweeted that her husband had thrown his back and had been in “unbelievable” pain the previous night, adding he “could not bend down to tie his shoelaces.” It is a sign of the times that we get such information on social media and not from official sources. We must insist that players be allowed to take wives on tours!
Be that as it may, Ashwin’s back will take its place alongside V.V.S. Laxman’s listing problem ahead of the Kolkata Test of 2001, Gavaskar’s toothache during his first double century in the West Indies, Anil Kumble’s broken jaw with which he bowled in the West Indies, Kapil Dev’s strained thigh and Dilip Doshi’s injured foot which didn’t prevent them from bowling Australia out for 83 and winning in Melbourne, and of course every one of Tiger Pataudi’s innings.
There is something about this Indian team the country can be proud of. In the past individual players have stood up in the face of adversity and delivered. In this series the whole team has. To win a Test after being dismissed for 36 in the previous one is difficult enough. To bat through 97 overs in a day with just eight wickets in hand, one batsman injured previously and another in the course of the innings is the stuff of fairy tales. And sporting legends.
Hanuma Vihari has shown bottle in the past; so has Ashwin. By batting through nearly 43 overs while struggling physically and under the double onslaught of the bowling and the sledging calls for the big heart we spoke of. There are times in Test cricket where technique is less important than courage — if Vihari writes his autobiography, he has a title right here!
If Pant’s was one of the finest attacking innings on the last day of a Test, Vihari’s was one of the finest defending. Ashwin’s natural sense of timing showed through the cloud of tension, and it was a beautiful sight.
Australia’s desperation was sad to see. Skipper Tim Paine has apologised saying his “leadership was not good enough.” Nor was his catching (he dropped three). Or his silent assent when two of his players crossed the line.
There was Matthew Wade throwing the ball at the injured Vihari in the hope he would jump out of the way and make his injury worse. This was pathetic.
Two sides of Smith
Steve Smith once again displayed both the Jekyll and Hyde aspects of his character. His innings of 131 and 81 were a continuation of a masterclass he has been holding in the art of batting which is unique to himself. On the final day, he was seen erasing Pant’s guard at the crease. The childishness of the ploy does not take away from the fact that such things bring the game into disrepute.
Will either Wade or Smith pay? Or be given a talking-to? Their actions weren’t illegal, but left a bad taste in the mouth.
Mohammed Siraj and Jasprit Bumrah have had to deal with racist taunts while fielding near the boundary. A team which has had to put up with isolation, injuries and long stays away from home doesn’t need to deal with racism too. India go into the final Test at Brisbane without two, maybe four of their Sydney eleven. Australia have not lost a Test there this century, winning 40 Tests while losing just eight. Under pressure they have shown a tendency to turn to the worst part of themselves. India will need a lot of heart.