It hasn't been long since India were bundled out for 36 — their lowest score in Test history (joint fifth-lowest ever). It hasn't been long since a shocked Virat Kohli found it difficult to put his "feelings into words" after watching them get thrashed to pieces. It hasn't been long since he questioned the batsmen's intent — his favourite buzzword — after the Adelaide capitulation.
However, 23 days since the pink ball Test, that Adelaide horror does feel long gone after watching India's performances in the last two Tests, especially after witnessing India fight fire with fire in the second innings of the Sydney Test. In the space of those 23 days, India have had their premier batsman unavailable. Lost a first-team pacer to injury. Bounced back to level the series 1-1. Lost another pacer to injury mid-Test. Had fingers and elbows smashed and left hamstrung. They have been subject to alleged racist slurs from the stands. But amidst all the adversities, they have stood strong. The grit and resilience they displayed on the final day of the Sydney Test was a testament to their mental strength and how far they have come from that Adelaide capitulation.
Getting bundled out for 36 would have a significant mental impact on any team. However, Ajinkya Rahane and Co picked up the pieces, assembled them in order, and bonded them together tightly into a fearless unit.
That fearlessness was on show on the final day and this performance will stay in memories for a long time. Yes, India were on the back foot for most of the Test but they were not afraid to take the attack to the opposition and bounced back every time they seemed to be get cornered.
India were forced to field their most inexperienced pace attack in 7 years with a total international game-time of 17 matches, in Sydney, without their three first-choice pacers in Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav.
India’s chosen pace attack will enter the #SydneyTest with a combined Test experience of 17 matches: Bumrah 16, Siraj 1, Saini 0.
The last time India fielded a pace attack with lesser Test experience was at Manchester in 2014 (Bhuvi 9, Aaron 1, Pankaj Singh 1).#AUSvIND
— Yash Jha (@jhayash) January 6, 2021
They had two batsmen - Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja - injured mid-match after being hit on the arm and thumb. And after being set a target of 407, on a Day 4 and 5 pitch, it wasn't tough for the mind to venture back to that Adelaide Test. Forget the fact that a 400 plus total was successfully last chased 13 years ago, that wouldn't have even crossed the mind. The first thought was, can they save the Test and if they did, it would be a massive achievement.
The aesthetic pair of Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill started off positively to give a glimmer of hope. But, at 98/2 at the end of the fourth day's play, it was still Australia in the driver's seat.
Ten balls into Day 5, India lost their captain. Suddenly those doubts started to creep in. And then surprisingly, Rishabh Pant walked out to the middle, ahead of Hanuma Vihari. There were two batsmen at the crease now, both under immense pressure and scrutiny. One constantly dealing with the word 'intent' right through his career and the other trying to fight inconsistencies and justify the 'talent' tag. Pujara's 'slow' approach had come under the scanner and divided opinions again while Pant, who had a tough time in the field having dropped two catches and scored a total of 30 runs in the last match, was battling pain after being hit on the elbow by a bouncer in the first innings.
That Pant promotion was a brave move and a statement of intent from the Indian team, that they wanted to go for the unthinkable. After a cautious start, Pant found his groove and went on a stunning counter-attack against Nathan Lyon, managing to hit him out of the attack on a Day 5 pitch. He continued his aggression and suddenly the pendulum of constantly oscillating emotions had swung the other way.
Pujara, calm and solid, too unfurled his drives and cuts. He was constantly charging down the track to Lyon and looking to take singles. And with every hit to the fence, the Australian confidence was slowly getting punctured.
The fields were spread and easy singles were taken. The mind boggled as Paine had five fielders on the fence even during the last over before lunch. This was far from the Australia of the yore. Yes, Pant was lucky to survive the edges and two dropped catches but his approach showed that the Australians can be pushed on the back foot by fighting fire with fire (and a combination of ice). India scored 108 runs in the morning session and it was fascinating to watch. The combination of fire and ice carried forward the momentum in the second session and suddenly the hope shifted from 'can they survive' to 'well, a win is possible here'.
Pant had copped a blow to his finger as well. He was on sprays, strappings, and painkillers. Watching him unfurl his flamboyant magic couldn't stop the mind taking a nostalgia tour back 22 years ago when Adam Gilchrist's 149 not out in Hobart pulled off a memorable 369-run chase for Australia against Pakistan or Ben Stokes' sensational 135 not out at Headingley in the 2019 Ashes.
However, like Gilchrist or Stokes, Pant couldn't finish off the chase. He lived by the sword and died by it, walking back for 97 (off 118 balls at a strike rate of 82.20), miscuing Lyon an over before the new ball was due. He walked back disappointed kicking the ground and boundary fencing but that innings had left a mark for many years to come. Of his 97 runs, 49 were scored against Lyon off 58 balls at a strike rate of 84.5.
Pujara continued from where Pant left and hit three consecutive fours to Cummins. The intent showed that India were still going for the win. However, Pujara received another jaffa, this time from Hazlewood, and his wait for a century which has lasted for two years now, only got longer. With Hanuma Vihari pulling his hamstring in the middle, Jadeja uncertain to bat and India having a frail tail, Australia were on the front foot again.
The mindset had changed and India shifted to playing out time. With a long tail, it was upon the pair of Vihari and Ashwin to bat as many overs as possible. It was by no means an easy task given the quality of the Australian bowling line-up and momentum shift. With the pitch still playing well, Ashwin and a half-fit Vihari defended with solidity and purpose and made sure that neither Jadeja or the tail were exposed. Vihari was on the precipice after failures in the first two Tests and he responded with a statement of purpose. The duo played out 289 balls combined (259 balls in partnership) to eke out a draw.
India played out 131 overs in the fourth innings in Sydney- fifth-most in their Test history.
It saved the fans from the 2014 Adelaide-level heartbreak and sent a strong message to Australia and the cricketing world that this Indian team is forged with nerves of steel. This performance will also be a huge confidence booster going into the Brisbane Test.
Most of these players have been away from home for around five months. Bio bubble stays have been tough. Add the mounting injuries and it takes a toll on you.
“When adversities grow, the team comes together," Ashwin had said after the fourth day's play. "Even after the Adelaide Test we came together, had a chat, had a team event, and I thought we came together pretty tight after the game. The result was what you saw in the MCG win,” he said.
“We haven’t seen a lockdown (ever before), we haven’t put this body to so much of rest, and sometimes when it rains it pours... it is an opportunity to show what mettle we are made of and everybody is putting up a good fight.”
"Look, as a cricket team, as a team inside the dressing room, we haven’t really spoken about how things are not going our way,” the off-spinner said.
“Sometimes when they don't go your way, they don't. That's how the sport is. But we refrain from talking about things that are not in control. I personally feel with whatever has been thrown at us, we have responded in a warrior-like fashion. And we would like to continue and take the fight on tomorrow (Day 5) also.”
On the final day in Sydney, India did take the fight to the Australians. They did show what mettle they are made of and they did respond in warrior-like-fashion, again.
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In two matches, India have been only able to pick up seven wickets — four in the first game when Proteas batted first and only three in the second
There’s no easy way of saying it. It’s time to thank Pujara and Rahane for their services and let them go.