Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar staged one of India's most admirable rearguard. (Getty Images)
Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar staged one of India's most admirable rearguard. (Getty Images)

India vs Australia: India's fight club finds new faces

  • India vs Australia: Stronger teams have toured Australia, few as brave as this bunch.
By Somshuvra Laha, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JAN 17, 2021 11:09 PM IST

“Mere me thoda talent hai batting ka,” (I do have some batting talent) Shardul Thakur said modestly at the end-of-day press conference, an hour after leaving Australia stunned by a leather hunt they clearly didn’t expect at the Gabba.

Australia could not have been prepared as some of the numbers thrown up in the fourth Test make it surreal. Three cricketers with a combined experience of one Test have now accounted for nine wickets and 130 runs. And there are still two innings to go. This is India in Australia by the way, battered and fielding a second string, which kept the home team at bay with a 123-run seventh-wicket stand between two players who had never batted together in Tests. Ravichandran Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari in Sydney, Washington Sundar and Thakur in Brisbane, the faces keep changing but the message that this India is more than the sum of its parts is loud and clear.

Asked to stay back to bowl in the nets during the Test series, Sundar dropped his hands evading bouncers, took a few blows, nudged singles through gaps and hit boundaries like a seasoned batsman though the previous first-class game he played was in 2017. A slog-sweep for six off Nathan Lyon will be remembered simply for the disdain with which Sundar treated the delivery, not even looking to see where the ball landed.

Thakur - used to batting in Mumbai’s lower order - came out swinging, pulling Pat Cummins over backward square-leg off the third ball he faced in his second Test. Within a few overs the script was going haywire for Australia. Having seen off Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant and Mayank Agarwal at 186/6 and with the new ball due in 14 overs, the match was Australia’s for the taking. End of Day 3 though, Australia are ahead by only 54 runs and staring at a possible loss of significant playing time with rain forecast in the next two days.

India are there, almost. The hosts need victory while India will retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with a draw.

Australia would rue the advantage lost. Hope came first in the form of Pujara’s wicket, drawn into nicking an almost unplayable Josh Hazlewood delivery in the fourth-stump channel. Five times now, he has been caught in the cordon, four of them taken by wicket-keeper Tim Paine off pitched up, angled-in deliveries.

Seeing Rahane survive a few streaky shots through the slips, Australia plugged the gap between third slip and gully with Matthew Wade and set up the India captain with a leaving delivery again. This time, Rahane walked into the trap. Agarwal was sent ahead of Pant to probably inspire some caution but he let himself down by chasing a wide delivery right after lunch. Six overs later, Pant tried to steer Josh Hazlewood but Cameron Green at gully showed great reflexes to take a low catch that belied a 6’7” frame. It should have been relatively easier for Australia thereon.

History though has often served up examples of batting heroics by the lower order when the top batsmen had found the scoring tough. Luck and a bit of wild swinging have contributed to most of those memorable stands. This partnership was different. Good balls were left alone and bad ones dispatched to the boundary. Within an hour, Thakur and Sundar had started making Australia’s bowlers look human. Tired and startled by the counterattack, Australia pacers resorted to bowling more bouncers. Their lines began to waver as Sundar and Thakur brought up India’s fourth fifty in just 67 deliveries. The previous three had come off 102, 123 and 120 deliveries each.

Slowly but surely, the maturity with which Sundar and Thakur were pacing their innings got to Australia. Thakur said some Australians were chirpy but he didn’t respond much. The focus was on not losing patience to concede Australia the advantage, on warning the partner if he “lost focus” and “slowing down the game” before breaks. “We wait for opportunities like this,” said Thakur. “We knew the more we stay, the more we score and reduce their lead. We weren’t looking at the scoreboard. We knew their bowlers were tiring. It was very important for us to hang in there and score off the loose balls.”

It turned into a bit of a fantasy ride, as if we haven’t seen enough this Test alone. The Indian cricket fan is familiar with overseas batting implosions, the last embarrassing one having come only a month back in Adelaide. India, and history supports this, are not supposed to produce jaw-dropping rearguards like these, at least not in consecutive Tests, and certainly not away from home.

Even Australia, who shot out India for 36 only three Tests back, were at a loss for words. “It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what happened at Adelaide and you probably don’t see that every day, and we haven’t seen it again in this series,” Hazlewood, who returned 5/57, was quoted as saying after the day. “The tail-enders these days, I think there’s not much difference between Nos. 7 and 8, they put a lot of work into their batting. Nos. 8, 9 and even 10 sometimes are difficult to get out. You’ve just got to treat them like a top-order batter unless they have a real specific weakness, but we’ll probably go back to our normal stuff in the second innings and see how that goes.”

Australia are justified in thinking this was a one-off. Not often do you see their pacers bowling bouncers to tail-enders like Navdeep Saini and T Natarajan when all they should have done is keep it quick and straight. So out of sorts was Paine that he didn’t realise he had actually dropped a faint tickle off Sundar’s gloves towards the end. Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins looked particularly fatigued while Nathan Lyon will have to wait for the second innings to get to 400 wickets in his 100th Test.

As Australia look to regroup through openers David Warner and Marcus Harris, the truth won’t be lost on them. On a not-so-easy Gabba pitch two men who had batted together just twice before dismantled Australia across 36 overs. Should the top bowlers recover in time for the home series against England, this could be the last Test Sundar and Thakur play away from home for a long time. One is essentially a white-ball player and the other is seventh pick among eight pacers. They played for pride though, giving India another chance at staying on Australia’s heels.

Stronger teams have toured Australia, few as brave as this bunch.

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