Miracle on Vulture Street

In Some Cricket Matches.. by Bill Ricquier

Even the game’s administrators might at last begin to realise what every genuine cricket person has always known: that there is no sporting contest so absorbing, so compelling, so complex and yet so intrinsically appealing, as the five-day Test match.

We have been exceptionally lucky in the last few years. There was the Headingley Ashes Test of 2019 when England won by one wicket, having been bowled out for 67 in their first innings. A few months earlier Sri Lanka had pulled off a remarkably similar feat against South Africa at Durban. These were stunning achievements, against all the odds. 

But Brisbane 2020-21, the fourth and final match in the series that Australia had to win to regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy was, somehow, different.

It wasn’t just the specific circumstances of the three matches, though that was certainly a factor. First, and most importantly, the game at the ‘Gabba got to the final session of the final day and it was the final and decisive Test of the series. Neither Headingley nor Durban got beyond the fourth day. Headingley was crucial in that had Australia won – which seemed probable at the start of England’s second innings, and more likely than not at the beginning of the fourth day, let alone the fall of the ninth wicket – they would have retained The Ashes with two games to play. Durban was the first game of a two-match series. (Can we please have no more – or at least fewer – of these two-match series? When did New Zealand last play a three -match series? They are in the running for the World Test Championship final.)

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Secondly, Headingley and Durban were epics of supreme individual endeavour. Of course Ben Stokes and Kusal Perera did not do it all on their own. They would be the last to claim such a thing and, anyway, cricket doesn’t work like that. The achievements stand alone, however, and somehow the matches stand-alone too. But Brisbane had a narrative that felt unique. There may be parallels in cricket history but it is difficult to think of any. It fascinated the global cricket public because it represented a magnificent team effort at the end of a series that had presented exceptional challenges in a consistently hostile environment. To add to the mix, India had been swept away for 36 in the second innings of the first Test at the Adelaide Oval, whereupon their captain and best player, Virat Kohli, had gone home.

It is interesting to look at the Indian eleven that played at Adelaide. One can usually assume that the team that plays in the first Test of a series is the first choice team. Of the eleven who played at Adelaide, only three were still in the side by Brisbane – the top order batsmen Mayank Aggarwal (who opened in the first two Tests and was then dropped), Cheteshwar Pujara, and Ajinkya Rahane. Pujara and Rahane were ever -present in the series. Wriddhinan Saha was regarded as a superior gloveman to Rishabh Pant, and, mysteriously, Ravindra Jadeja was not regarded as an automatic choice. 

Critical to the hopes of the Indian team in Australia was the pace bowling attack. When India toured Australia in 2018-19, and won the four-Test series two-one, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma shared 48 wickets. Umesh Yadav was also on that trip but played only one Test. Sharma missed the 2020-21 tour because of injury. Bumrah, Shami and Yadav led the attack at Adelaide, with the highly experienced off spinner Ravindra Ashwin also playing. Shami was injured (while batting) during the game and played no further part in the series. Yadav missed the last two Tests because of a strained calf muscle. Bumrah pulled out of the Brisbane Test with an abdominal strain. 

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Meanwhile, two of the heroes of the draw at Sydney, Ashwin and middle order batsman Hanuma Vihari were also ruled out of the Brisbane Test (they had shared a two and a half hour match-saving partnership together, Vihari effectively batting on one leg and Ashwin with a tweaked back muscle). Jadeja, who had had his hand broken while batting was also unfit to play in the final game. 

Thus it was that in India’s line-up at The ‘Gabba, numbers seven to eleven, Washington Sundar, Shardul Thackur, Navdeep Sami, Mohammed Siraj and T Natarajan had played a total of four Teats between them, two of which had been played by Siraj in this series. And they were to be playing at Australia’s Brisbane fortress, where the home side had not lost a Test since 1988-89 when they were beaten by nine wickets by Vivian Richards’ West Indians. India did not play in Brisbane in 2018-19.

The game had been beautifully set up because of India’s remarkable draw at Sydney, following their equally remarkable win at the MCG, a triumph as batsman and captain for Rahane. At Sydney, set an apparently academic 402 to win, India’s real target was to survive the 97 overs available on the final day with eight wickets left. Pujara, inevitably, was the mainstay early in the day, and Vihari and Ashwin kept the Australian attack at bay for the last 40 overs but the dominant hand was played by Pant, in an extraordinarily forthright and audacious innings of 97 off 118 balls. At one point it looked as though India might actually win. In the end it was one of those draws which seemed more like a victory for the side that had seemed almost certain to lose.

So the teams, and their bubbles, moved to Brisbane, with India struggling to find 11 fit players. (India used 20 players in the series compared to Australia 14.)

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The game started conventionally enough, Australia winning the toss and batting with local boy Marnus Labuschagne making a hundred. They closed the first day in an apparently commanding position at 274 for five, with captain Tim Paine and all-rounder Cameron Green well set. But India’s untried attack fought back well the next morning and Australia were bowled out for 369, with Natarajan, Thackur and Sundar each taking three wickets. India reached tea on 62 for two (Rohit Sharma out for 44) and then the heavens opened.

India’s top order batsmen struggled to establish any sort of control on the third day. Pujara, Rahane, Agarwal and Pant each made between 23 and 38 but when Pant was out to Josh Hazlewood (five wickets in the innings) the score was only 186 for six. This brought together Sundar, on debut, and Thackur in his second Test (but he didn’t bat in the first). They put on a vital 123, which changed the complexion of the game. It was a wonderful partnership, both players showing courage, resilience and flair. Thackur made 67 and the left-handed Sundar 64. Australia’s lead was a mere 33.

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The fourth day was all about Australia setting a target. This is another of the unique things about Test cricket. How was that target to be gauged? Paine would want to have enough time to bowl India out. At the same time Pant’s pyrotechnics at Sydney made it clear what the Indians were capable of. When the lead was 274 around tea the game seemed almost exquisitely poised but then rain came and Paine opted to bat on afterwards, with the tail adding another 52. Siraj, the leader of the attack after all of two Tests, had failed to take a wicket in the first innings but now took five. 

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The equation for the final day was simple enough. India needed to make 324 (they were four for no wicket overnight) and Australia needed to take ten wickets. It was anticipated, if not assumed, that there would be rain. 

When Pat Cummins had the dangerous Sharma caught behind for seven, the odds really seemed in Australia’s favour. But the 21-year old Shubman Gill (first-class average 72) and Pujara steadied the ship. India were 83 for one at lunch, with Gill on 64 and Pujara on 8. An Indian victory still seemed implausible. Even a draw still seemed less likely than an Australian win. Throughout the match a d indeed throughout the series wickets had tended to fall in clusters. There were widening cracks on the wicket and Cummins and Hazlewood in particular were a constant threat.

Gill and Pujara carried on. They were a fascinating contrast. Gill, tall and slim, had oozed class since his first appearance at Melbourne. His strokeplay was exhilarating, off front and back foot. All the Indian players were tested by the short stuff. Mitchell Stark did not bowl as well as the others but his unpredictability made his bouncer more dangerous. Cummins’ accuracy was almost metronomic; to the end he remained the greatest threat.

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What can one say about Pujara? A T20 fan would presumably say he was boring. In fact he is fascinating, He gets in and he stays in. His concentration and determination are phenomenal. And he has immense courage. He bore the brunt of the short pitched bowling, being hit at least twice on the helmet and several times on the hands and his left elbow. 

He was the perfect foil for Gill and was occasionally tempted to follow his partner; the pair hit 20 off a Stark over after lunch. Gill was out for 91 with the score on 132 in the 48th over. That brought in Rahane. India’s two best and most experienced batsmen were now together. Rahane, as he had done since Melbourne, led from the front. He made only 24 but it was a busy proactive 24. He was out in the 57th over with the score on 167 for 3 

Rahane was replaced by Pant, promoted as at Sydney. This was the crucial phase of the day. Pant started calmly enough but the odds seemed to shift against India when Pujara was out for 56 off 211 balls, with the score on 228 for four in the 81st over. 

Now the equation was very simple: 100 runs in 20 overs.

Pant just went for it. Given the stake, the tension, the fact he was batting at the end with the tail – Agarwal went for 9 but Sundar made an invaluable 22, helping Pant add 53. In the end Pant got them over the line with three overs to spare. His 89 not out contained just nine fours and a six. It was intelligent, aggressive m, focussed batting of the highest class. 

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It was a dismal result for Australia, and the unfortunate Paine. He did a tremendous job in awful circumstances after the Sandpapergate crisis but he seems to be making a habit of losing or drawing matches his team really ought to win. Now it seems less likely that they will qualify for the World Test Championship final. Nathan Lyon has tended to look a little one dimensional in this series. At the beginning of it the Australian pundits were all looking forward to celebrating his 400th Test wicket, maybe in his 100th Test at Brisbane. He started the series with 391 and finished with 399.

As for India, what can one say? Many critics had written them off before the series started; almost all had done after the first Test. The achievement of Rahane and his increasingly beleaguered squad – there were allegations of racial abuse from a section of the crowd at Sydney, Siraj had to miss his father’s funeral, Natarajah the birth of his first child – was truly extraordinary. 

One is sometimes tempted to look at a Test match and try and find something that transcends the match itself. At Brisbane it cane in the final over before lunch on the tumultuous fifth day. Remember, India were one wicket down and fighting to save the game. Stark steamed in and bowled a bouncer to Gill. It was outside off. Gill uppercut it for six. 

That is the new India and demonstrates perfectly how Test cricket is developing. That is why the five day game must be nurtured. There is nothing like it.

Bill Ricquier

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