As the game's shorter format is gaining more and more popularity, the purest format is trying its best to stay relevant. T20 leagues like the Indian Premier League, Big Bash League, Vitality Blast have risen incredibly in the last decade. They have resulted in a drastic change in the way players approach this bat-and-ball game. It is amazing to see how this format has transformed from the era of LARA and DRAVID to the era of STOKES and PANT. Although test cricket is becoming more and more predictable these days, it never fails to surprise its fans now and then. Several instances like the Edgbaston Test of The Ashes 2005, the Adelaide Test between SA and AUS in 2012, the Headingley Test of The Ashes 2019 prove that Test Cricket is indeed alive and as pure as it can get.
While the shorter format is all about the final result, Test Cricket is about the mini-battles within the same match, which sets this format apart. Test Cricket is a long journey and has many ups and downs, hence irrespective of the result, it is fascinating for its fan to follow it closely.
Fast forward to one such close contest. It was the India vs Australia, Sydney Test of the Border Gavaskar Trophy 2020/21. Sydney tests have always had something in them which makes them memorable(for good or bad reasons :P), and this one was no different.
To give a little background about this series, it was a very challenging tour for India as they were playing against one of the best teams at their backyard. On top of that, their run machine, Virat Kohli, was missing out from the second test onwards. As Harsha Bhogle rightly says, “Virat Kohli is the most important man in Test cricket today” Virat’s shoe was a big one to fill for Ajinkya and co. Virat ever since got assigned the Captain’s role, had consistently delivered both at home and away. His loss from the side was going to make it tougher for India directly and also psychologically. Lesser we knew then that this was only a small part of the hurdle and much more was to come as the series would unfold :)
The cricket experts also predicted the same, and honestly, to be fair to them, I didn’t expect India to play well either.
Before the Sydney test, the series was equally poised, with Australia winning the first test at Adelaide and Indians winning the second test at Melbourne. More than the loss at Adelaide, India’s collapse of 36 was more concerning. Barring that, India had put in some remarkable efforts in the next test even after missing their skipper and Shami. But the road ahead for Indian Team was even tougher since apart from Virat, players like KL, Shami, Umesh were going to miss out from the side. The inexperienced pacers only had an experience of 20 tests in total (with Bumrah having 16 tests himself), while on the other hand, Australia’s attack was as formidable as ever.
As expected, Australia came up with a very positive mindset and kicked off their innings with a promising start. The track was pretty flat and very batting-friendly. With the batting Australia had and India's very inexperienced bowling attack, 500 was on the cards. It was a great battle between bat and ball, but Indians did pretty well and managed to restrict the lower-middle order, and Australia managed to put up a score of 338. Special mention to a great knock by Steve Smith.
For India, the pick of the bowler was again Ravindra Jadeja as he had been throughout the tour.
Jadeja has been one of the most consistent performer for India in all formats and in all departments since last few years. He is a world-class spinner and very handy with the bat at difficult positions like #6, #7. His stats have been very astounding due credits to his hard work over the years, and increasing self-confidence as a batsman.
India’s batting was pretty new, too, barring Rohit, Pujara, and Rahane, other batsmen had minimal experience. To get closer to Australia’s score, someone from the top had to put up a miraculous inning. India’s tail had been very vulnerable throughout the tour, which meant that after Australia breaks through the middle order, they could end India’s inning very quickly.
India’s top order started well and was set to score big, but lost their way in the middle and thus suffered a trail of 94 runs. Along with the trail, India was worried about new injuries. While batting, Jadeja and Pant had injured their thumb and elbow, respectively, and it was unsure if they would play again in the next inning.
Australia had clearly won the initial battles after gaining a lead of 94 and were all set to post a challenging target to this pretty feeble Indian side. India's next big task was to dismiss Australia for a small total, but looking at the Australian lineup, the task was going to be a mammoth task. And as expected, they batted long, and several dropped catches ensured that they set a target of 407.
Understandably, no one even gave barest of a chance to India that they would chase such a target or even playout the remaining 131 overs on a day 5 track against such a bowling attack. More and more injuries only meant it would get tougher. If India could bat for 60–70 overs, it would have been a great effort honestly, but dashers like Pant had other plans. Before the commencement of the last day, experts felt the same.
310 ahead at the moment, but I honestly think India won’t make 200 in the second innings. — Ricky Ponting
As the day started, it was time for India’s real test of resilience. There were a lot of questions to be answered. Can the duo of Pujara and Rahane do what Dravid and Laxman did in 2001? When Pant comes in, will he play the usual dasher’s role, or would we witness a more mature Pant? Will we have a fit XI playing the last inning? Can our inexperienced tail contribute with the bat if it comes out to that? What would be the batting order? And most importantly, how strong is our bench? So much to watch out for on the last day, and that’s why Test is such a beautiful format.
The finest day of test cricket started with India needing another 309 runs to score and Australia needing 8 wickets (if all were fit to bat). India hoped for a good start in the first session. However, Rahane perished in the second over itself. The GOAT, Nathon Lyon scalped the first one, and nothing looked good for India. The battle looked almost one-sided now, and Indian fans just wished that India could at least bat out a couple of sessions, which would do good to their morale before moving to Gabba.
After the fall of Ajinkya, Pant came out to bat before Vihari, who was the expected #5. Personally, the strategy was a good one; the match anyway looked lost, promoting Pant made Aussies rethink their plans. And oh boy, how well did he unsettle Australia. He started firmly with a 3 off 30odd balls but runs started flowing when he started taking on Lyon.
Pujara started playing the positive shots, too, and pant started taking on the spinner, things all of a sudden started looking in control, even though India were a good 200–250 runs behind. The best thing to see was the positive intent with which India was playing. Pant played a gem of an innings, and we could see the momentum shift towards India.
Pant unsettled Australia so much that they removed the attacking field and set a semi-defensive field for him. The modern-day player didn’t hesitate to take on fielders, and the equation now started looking achievable. Pant reached his 40s, and the game looked set for a great contest and looked easier for India to win than to draw. Australia started panicking, and their captain, Tim Paine, started dropping lollies, not knowing what was to come.
The pair batted out the entire first session, and it was beautiful to see positive shots played by Pujara and Pant. India finished at 206 for 3 at lunch. India was playing great cricket, but still, everyone was aware that this could be the last pair who can bat long since Vihari and Ash were having a bad patch of form, and Jadeja had a broken thumb. The new ball was also due in another 10 overs, and the new ball brings in quick wickets. All of these made it more important for this pair.
The second session started, and all three results were possible, credits to the way India batted during the first session. India won the first battle. The new ball was due soon, and it was important to take advantage of the softer ball before the new ball’s taken, and Pant was right on it. The hitting continued for a few more overs, and Pant just turned on his T20 mode.
But not long after, Pant edged one straight to Pat Cummins off Lyon trying to bring his 100 with a Six. He played a magnificent 97 given the conditions and deserved his ton. The timing of Pant’s dismissal wasn’t the best for India since the new ball was around the corner, but it is just the way Pant plays, isn’t it?
You don’t want to be in both dressing rooms when he(Pant) bats. The opposition dressing room would be hoping for a wicket when watching him bat and we are sitting here, thinking he shouldn’t play a rash shot. — Ashwin
The dismissal created a need for reassessment in the Indian dressing room. India had played very well till now but required another 150 odd runs and around 50 more overs to survive with Pujara and Vihari on crease and Ashwin to follow. The task was tough, and the win was almost out of the equation now (well, at least according to normal fans like me xD but umm, not according to the Indian players and support staff). Pujara again rose to the occasion, realising that he is the set batsman now, he took on their leading bowler and smashed Cummins for three back to back fours. He was playing good positive shots, and I could hear commentators say, “I think they are going for it. I think they are going for it.” repetitively. But unfortunately, Pujara couldn’t last for long and was cleaned by a blinder from Hazlewood. Pujara scored 77 and played 205 balls, and that is 34 overs!!! What Pujara ensured was that he added valuable runs and also tired the oppositions.
After Pujara’s dismissal, India needed another 130 odd runs in ~40 overs and had 5 wickets in hand, but since the tail was weak and Jaddu not fit, it was down to these two to play out most of the overs. The most important question again at this moment was if India would still go for the glory or would they satisfy with a draw? Being a practical person myself, go for a draw was what I begged, but umm, this side, can’t say what on their mind was.
The target was 130ish and was achievable by modern standards, but India's main problems were the injuries and easy tail. And the situation became worse when Vihari pulled off a hamstring while taking a quick single, and Ash’s back pain started becoming serious.
Even with all these challenges, India continued batting, and this pair showed real grit and resilience in batting against one of the best bowling attacks then. They used the strategy of playing to their strengths, and Ash struggled against bouncers, so Vihari took most of the strike against the pacers and Vihari struggled against the spinners, so Ash played spin more. The balls left were in double digits now, and at this moment, Aussies started getting frustrated with the way it was turning out since they were comfortably winning it till the end of Day 4. The frustration led to a few exchanges, which then resulted in dropped catches xD
Ash and Vihari were fighting it one over at a time. And at this moment, Australians started falling apart and were desperately craving a wicket. Bowlers were running in fast and pitching it at the right spot throughout the day, but Indian batsmen always found a way to get better of them. It was that time in the test when the Indian contingent in the crowd started cheering after each and every ball. India batted them all with utmost determination.
Spare a thought for Hanuma Vihari. Endured a wretched tour, worried about his immediate future, tweaks his hamstring, can’t run…. everything going wrong….then produces one of the finest rearguard actions in Indian cricket.
— Harsha Bhogle
The penultimate over began, and now it was just about formality (unless…)
Fortunately for the weak hearted fans, there were no more turns in the match, India satisfactorily survived the penultimate over, and Australia shook hands and settled for a draw.
This draw was no lesser than a win for India, no matter what was to happen in the final test, this series was going to be remembered for this match (that’s what we thought at least then xD)
Throughout the test, India had to go through the racial attacks from the crowd, and so many injuries before and during the test, still India fought hard and survived 133 overs in the fourth innings against arguably the current best bowling attack in the world!!!
I couldn't help thinking of an u-23 game vs Hyderabad many years ago where we had lost all hope to win, @ashwinravi99 and another tailender took us home on the final day. Sometimes the seeds of junior cricket take us very far!
— Abhinav Mukund after the match
Couldn’t ask more from test cricket. The Ash and Vihari pair, who were targetted throughout the series for their poor contribution with the bat, batted out over 40 overs while limping between the creases. It just goes out to show how good and courageous India’s first class cricket is. This test cricket classic is going to be remembered for a long long time.
In the end, it was a victory for test cricket. A lot was said on the field, but it finally ended with handshakes, and that is why this sport is called a gentlemen’s sport.