India's Ravichandran Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari walk back to the dressing room after drawing the third Test against Australia at Sydney Cricket Ground(Twitter)
India's Ravichandran Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari walk back to the dressing room after drawing the third Test against Australia at Sydney Cricket Ground(Twitter)

India vs Australia: Incredible India! R Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari highlight a great escape

With a target of 309 going into the fifth day with two wickets down, India lost only three more to stay unbeaten on 334 in 131 overs. It is the third most overs faced in a fourth innings on Australian soil in the last 10 years.
UPDATED ON JAN 11, 2021 09:11 PM IST

If pain barriers had a unit of measurement, the Indian team would have tested its highest limits till the last ball of the final day in Sydney, and come out the other side with a smile.

Rishabh Pant hammered the fierce Aussie bowling attack with a bruised elbow. Hanuma Vihari pulled off a survival act with a strained hamstring. Ravichandran Ashwin woke up on the morning of the fifth day with a back so sore that he found it hard to tie his shoelaces; he took several blows to the ribs and rooted down at the wicket with Vihari.

Ravindra Jadeja sat in the dugouts with his dislocated thumb strapped, padded up and ready to take the field.

The sweet result of enduring pain with thrilling levels of grit? A draw in the third Test, the series still alive. All that, with half the first-choice side unavailable.

“I think this is as good as winning,” India captain Ajinkya Rahane said after the day’s play.

Against one of the finest bowling attacks in cricket, with a barrage of short balls and plenty of sledging, the batsmen survived through solid defense, unshakeable intent, dropped chances, and DRS calls to showcase a rear-guard defiance that will be remembered as one of the best in the history of Indian cricket. It was the first time since 2003 that India batted for more than 100 overs in the fourth innings.

With a target of 309 going into the fifth day with two wickets down, India lost only three more to stay unbeaten on 334 in 131 overs. It is the third most overs faced in a fourth innings on Australian soil in the last 10 years.

Defiance

Numbers, however, don’t tell the story. What ensued in the midst of those three dismissals needs to be looked at with the perspective of the happenings over the last few days. First up: Cheteshwar Pujara, after the slowest fifty (174 balls) of his career, faced questions over his glacial approach. Pant, in the side at the expense of Wriddhiman Saha, had a forgettable outing behind the stumps. Vihari dropped sitters on the field and Ashwin went without wickets in the first innings. Not to forget, the team was subjected to racial abuse too by a section of the SCG crowd.

Yet, when it mattered, all four stood up to be counted.

On the eve of the fifth day, Ashwin said: “When adversities grow, the team comes together.”

Despite the fact that the fifth-day pitch was slow and looked easy to bat on, the Australian team had the no.1 Test bowler in the world (Pat Cummins), a spinner (Nathan Lyon) who is four short of 400 wickets and a left-handed pacer (Mitchell Starc) with 250-plus victims. Even Josh Hazlewood has a 200-plus tally to his name. Yet, the day belonged to the bruised and battered Indian team.

Pant goes big

After Lyon got Ajinkya Rahane at short leg off the 10th ball of the day, Australia sniffed a chance to close things quickly. In came Pant, promoted to No. 5, on the back of a 36 in the first innings and an elbow injury that prevented him from keeping in the second innings.

He got an early reprieve on 3 with wicketkeeper Tim Paine dropping him off Lyon. The Australia captain’s terrible day would continue with another dropped chance of Pant on 56 off the same spinner and a third one when he let off Hanuma Vihari on 15 off Mitchell Starc.

On the field were two Indian batsmen with contrasting styles. If Pujara’s forte is to hold the fort, Pant is all about the big shot.

Yet, with the team in a precarious place, Pant curbed his instincts to score five off 34 balls. Then, off the next 84 balls that he faced, the left-hander scored 68; 66 of those in boundaries (12x4s, 3x6s).

It all started as he came down the track against Lyon with a heave over mid-on. With that, the game-plan of promoting Pant above Vihari to counter-attack was set in motion. In Test whites, Pant played with same abandon he does in limited overs cricket, swinging and swivelling at almost every ball. All three of his sixes came off Lyon. Pujara freed up too, and India went to lunch on 206/3, needing 201 in two sessions.

What seemed like a day to cling on to desperately for a draw had become a thrilling chase for a win.

Post the break, Pujara brought up his second half-century of the match, quite uncharacteristically with a flick off Lyon that raced to the boundary.

The trouble started when, three short of his second century at the SCG and an over to go before the second new ball came in, Pant danced down the track against Lyon and edged to Cummins at gully. With the 148-run stand broken, the onus was on Pujara now. He responded with three straight fours against Cummins. Just when it seemed he had changed gears, a straight delivery from Hazlewood knocked into his stumps. That left India at 272/5, with Vihari the only specialist batsman left. Having pulled his right hamstring early in the second innings, his thigh was heavily strapped.

Pain/Paine

Over the course of the next three hours, Vihari’s pain would make it a struggle to even walk to the other end.

At the other end, Ashwin, struggling with his back, was targeted on the ribs, shoulder, and abdomen; a Cummins delivery thudded into his chest so hard that he needed a medical time-out.

Next in line was another injured player; Jadeja sat padded and strapped, unable even to peel a banana without assistance (Navdeep Saini had to help), but ready to step in.

That Jadeja never had to take field, and India now go to the Gabba with the series level, was because Ashwin and Vihari took the blows but could not be broken. It was a 259-ball blockathon, performed under immense pressure.

While the bowlers attacked Ashwin’s body, Paine targeted his mind.

“I can’t wait to get you to the Gabba, Ash, woo hoo,” the stump-mic picked up Paine telling Ashwin.

“Just like we want to get you to India…that will be your last series,” said Ashwin.

“Maybe…are you a selector here as well?” Paine replied. “At least my teammates like me, d***head. I’ve got a lot more Indian friends than you do.”

“Tell me when you’re done,” Ashwin said and stepped off his guard.

“I’ll talk all day Mate,” Paine said.

Lyon, waiting to bowl as this went on, gesticulated and asked Ashwin to bat.

“It’s your guy man, not me,” Ashwin said to Lyon.

“How many IPL teams wanted you when you asked every single one of them to have you?” Paine persisted.

It did not deter Ashwin, but Paine’s nightmare behind the stumps continued when he dropped a catch moments later off Starc.

Meanwhile, Ashwin and Vihari soldiered on. Ashwin was even heard mentoring Vihari in Tamil—“pathu pathu ball ah aadalaam”, he was heard saying at one point—“let's take it 10 balls at a time!” They exchanged thigh pads. The Aussies had six close-in fielders.

“Play on buddy, play on,” Ashwin said to Vihari.

Indeed. The pair played on, scoring 62 runs together—Vihari faced down 161 balls for his 23* and Ashwin 128 balls for his 39*—when, with an over left for the day, the teams decided to call it even. The match had been saved. The fourth Test begins Friday.

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