36, in cricketing parlance, is known to be the peak of batting achievement.
36, in scientific parlance, is the atomic number of Krypton.
Over the course of one wretched hour at Adelaide on the afternoon of 19 December, 2020 – one that will be as forever forgettable as it will be frustratingly unforgettable – India’s batting superheroes had a fateful encounter with their kryptonite.
Exactly four years from the day India climbed to their statistically greatest height – 759/7 against England at Chennai, India’s highest score in Test history – they plummeted to their greatest depth, statistically or otherwise.
How do you begin to describe the seemingly inexplicable?
In the hours since the torturous opening hour at the Adelaide Oval on Saturday, anyone invested in Indian cricket, in any capacity, has found it nigh-on impossible to put words to their thoughts. It would be fair to imagine the sense of being dumbstruck isn’t going to evaporate any time soon.
Emotion is a defining factor in the initial stages of grieving, commonly. Acceptance is the final stage. And acceptance is rooted in reason.
It’s still early, yes. But let’s try to reason it out.
Masterful concoction meets miserable conviction
The only time India had ever folded for less than 50 runs in a Test innings, at Lord’s in 1974, came on an overcast and humid fourth morning of the game that is believed to have offered significantly different conditions to what had been seen over the first three days.
The last time any team folded for 36 or fewer runs in a Test innings, the year was 1955 – the suffering party being a New Zealand side that was still searching for a first Test win, 24 years and 31 matches since admission, facing England on a devious third-day track at Auckland’s Eden Park.
The Adelaide surface on Saturday, in contrast, didn’t have the ‘devils’ that can bite modern-day second-innings efforts. Instead, this was a masterclass in bowling execution meeting a meltdown in batting construction.
Cheteshwar Pujara – who batted 1258 balls the last time he was in Australia – was set up by just the delivery the Australians would have undoubtedly worked upon over and over in their preparations. It was an immaculate implementation by Pat Cummins, but it was also the one area that the Pujara defence finds difficult: angling in, and moving away, just enough. How stoic his 160-ball vigil from day one was, we now truly know.
Mayank Agarwal, for the first 39 balls of his stay, had faced 35 deliveries from Mitchell Starc, and only four from Cummins. Given the way Cummins was bowling – and how he’d set him up just 48 hours earlier – Agarwal had had the better seat in the house. The 40th ball he faced was the first Josh Hazlewood bowled in the innings. And it was the most Josh Hazlewood ball that Josh Hazlewood would ever want to bowl. On most days, that would threaten to be good enough for most batsmen. Facing it first up, you wouldn’t be betting on yourself as a batsman.
Over the next three balls, Hazlewood had already worked over the new man in the middle, Ajinkya Rahane, well enough for his fourth – a snorter, really – to be a knockout blow.
The last two balls that Virat Kohli would face on this Australian summer – how poorer we would be if it were to be the last, ever – were among the least well-executed ones bowled by Cummins on the day. But by this point, the Indian captain wasn’t just facing the bowling attack; he was facing a scorecard that read 15/5, well aware of the limitations of the resources that remained in his dressing room. One streaky boundary, followed by the death-knell.
Kohli’s thoughts at the conclusion summed it up.
“I think the way we batted allowed them to look more potent than they were in the morning to be honest. They bowled similarly in the first innings and we batted way, way better.”
Australia’s plans were, as Kohli stated, similarly laid out two days earlier. But back then – how long ago it seems – Kohli, and the majority of the batsmen, were batting the situation and not the scoreboard. None of the skipper’s five boundaries against the Australian pacers had come via his favoured route of the off-side drive.
Where the hat must be doffed to Australia’s three-pronged attack on the third morning, however, is in terms of their exhilarating execution.
48% of the deliveries Australia bowled during that innings were on a good line and length. That's the fourth highest figure they have recorded in a Test innings since 2006. #AUSvIND
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) December 19, 2020
48% of the deliveries Australia bowled in the second innings were on a good line and length, as per CricViz. Since 2006, only thrice have they planted more balls in that channel in a Test innings. For Hazlewood, the master craftsman among the masterly pace trio, that figure was a staggering 60%.
“If your mindset is not right, like ours wasn't today, when we lacked in intent, the opposition can sense it and put you under extreme pressure. That is exactly what happened,” remarked Kohli.
India were facing wizardry, but they will know when they go back to the drawing board that they were a bit too bewitched.
It could’ve been so, so different
Less than 18 hours before that hour, the poles were so markedly opposite.
Australia had conceded a first-innings lead for the first time in eight day-night Tests. Australia’s first innings had ended at under 200 for only the seventh time in their last 145 home Tests since 1995. Steven Smith had not hit a first innings century for the first time in five home Tests against India.
And that’s without considering the traditional gifts India came with, despite the breathtaking brilliance of their bowling battery.
Marnus Labuschagne wasn’t too far off from having the same number of lives as a cat, and even counting the first ‘clear’ offering of his that went begging, India conceded 31 reprieved runs to the Australian number three.
Tim Paine was on 26 – and Australia on 111/7 – when he was dropped by Agarwal off Jasprit Bumrah. Australia’s last three wickets would go on to add a further 80 runs, and their skipper’s unbeaten 73 would land him a maiden Man-of-the-Match award in Tests.
“A bit of [a] lead can always be tricky because as a batting unit you can go into a headspace where you feel like we are just 50 or 60 ahead and you don’t want to lose early wickets and allow [the] opposition back into the game,” explained Kohli after the game.
How differently India would have batted if they led by 80, or 90, or even 120 – which they could have, if Australia’s lower-order provided similar returns to India’s – we will never know.
But lower-order efforts from the opposition in tough away Tests coming to haunt India… where have we heard that before?
Accept that there IS a problem
At the onset, let’s make it clear that one ought to hope that the spiral from the rock-bottom low of 19 December 2020 isn’t as corroding as the stat in itself. This is a scar that will last, not least given the times we live in.
But let’s also hope that the Indian team, in their attempt at clawing back from these depths, don’t shy away from a tenet vital to overcoming their troubles: Acceptance is the final – and, arguably, most essential – stage of grieving.
Even before ‘36’ came to haunt Indian cricket, their batting endeavours in Test cricket this year hadn’t been befitting of their potential, or pride. Five innings in New Zealand and Australia, either side of the pandemic-enforced break from the game, had seen India return scores of 165, 191, 242, 124 and 244. If there isn’t enough improvement in Melbourne come next week, India are staring at their first-ever year without a score of 250, with a minimum consideration of more than two Tests in a calendar year.
Since 2011, India have won only five out of 37 Tests in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa – again, not numbers befitting of a side insistent on proving itself as world-beaters. For perspective, Pakistan have won four out of 24 Tests, and Sri Lanka four out of 27, in the same countries in the same period.
If this Indian unit is to be considered a true heavyweight, it needs to be punching well above this weight.
PSA: Accept that there is a societal problem, India
The above-mentioned ‘acceptance’ is what one hopes the Indian cricket team can arrive upon, for its prosperity. But irrespective of whether they do the same or not, and irrespective of where they go from here, there is a country-wide acceptance that ought to be a non-negotiable, for the sake of India’s societal fabric.
‘36 all out’ isn’t the most damning indictment of where ‘India’ stands today. You know what is? That one woman’s name becomes a trending topic at the slightest indifference in performances on a cricket field.
That this ‘trend’ continues even at the end of a year that one would have thought provided a slightly better perspective on life – and how sport, or anything other than life itself, isn’t the same – is the truest horror of 19 December 2020.
In the words of Richie Benaud: “The Titanic was a tragedy, the Eithiopian drought a disaster, and neither bears any relation to a dropped catch.”
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India started day five on 98-2 but despite losing Ajinkya Rahane in the second over, they batted out the day to finish on 334 for five - helped by Paine's three dropped catches behind the stumps.
Langer said the fightback after the Adelaide debacle was nothing short of remarkable especially after injury-forced ouster of big players like Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja.
After Sharma’s dismissal, India didn’t score a run for 32 balls. In hindsight, Sharma was right that if he didn’t take on the bowling then the scoring rate would stagnate. But somewhere there had to be better game awareness.