The Brisbane chase: 'At Tea, if we have wickets in hand, we’ll take the game'
A Virat Kohli-less Indian batting may seem deflating to even the most optimistic. Add to it the ignominy of getting dismissed for their lowest Test score–36–against Australia in Adelaide. For the Indian team, the road ahead after that opening Test in Australia may have looked bleak.
Yet, under Ajinkya Rahane, the Indian team embarked on a remarkable, transformative journey. The batsmen rediscovered themselves with grit and exuberance in equal measure. If Rahane turned the wheels with a century in Melbourne, Ravichandran Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari batted for over 42 overs in Sydney to showcase that a draw can be as tense as anything you will see on a sporting field. And finally, Rishabh Pant came to the party in Brisbane after opener Shubman Gill provided the perfect start and Cheteshwar Pujara braved body blows to propel India to their most astounding Test win yet.
At the beginning of that process, the Adelaide defeat, India batting coach Vikram Rathour and his colleagues in the coaching staff had sensed the glimmer of an opportunity.
“We were well aware after the first Test match that he (Kohli) would not be available," Rathour said over the phone. "So, mentally we were ready for that. Missing somebody like Virat, he is the best batsman and he is also the captain of the team, we knew it was a big job...you can’t really replace somebody like Virat anyways. We had the belief that we have enough bench strength. Somebody like Shubman Gill...a lot of us, for the past year and half, have been watching him in the nets and (saw him) getting runs in India A games. All of us had the belief that he is going to be a special talent. We thought maybe this is the time to play him and we will get to know how good he is.”
But before Kohli could depart for India to be present for his child’s birth and Gill could make an entry, Indian cricket received a rude shock in the second innings of the first Test. In just a session, a famed batting line up had crumbled to a record low.
“When the tour started I believed we had prepared really well. We had started planning for it in June-July when we were in lockdown. After that we, the Test batting group, were in Australia, the Test almost a month ahead," Rathour said. "When Adelaide happened we were all stunned. Looking at it later, I personally did not find any fault. Nobody played a bad shot. We believed it’s a one-off thing. That was the message given to all the players as well, that we need to believe in our method and not let doubts creep in at this stage.”
Rahane’s special knock
Now with Kohli gone and the horror show of Adelaide writ large, there was a new purpose to the team.
“It was for the whole batting unit. They understood that they are going to miss the best batsman in the team, who has done well for us for many years now. Everybody had to take up the responsibility to fill his gap,” the 51-year-old coach said. “In Melbourne, it was a good toss to lose. We bowled really well. Then somebody needed to step up as a batsman. Ajinkya did that job brilliantly with a special knock (112 in the first innings), one of his better ones I would say. He showed lot of character and discipline. He had some important partnerships on the way. With Pant he had a good partnership, he had a brilliant one with Jadeja as well. That was the turning point.”
While Rahane responded to the Adelaide debacle with a famous ton, Pujara put his body on the line against fiery Australian bowling and shielded the rest of the batsmen with his solidity; he scored two of his slowest half-centuries in the process.
"That’s his strength, to blunt the attack, Rathour said. “The discussion of his (Pujara’s) strike-rate is only in the media. We have never really discussed his strike-rate. Normally, he would carry on, he would not get out after getting a start; he converts and his strike-rate improves. In this series, unfortunately, he kept getting out after reaching 40s or 50s. That's one area I'm sure he is looking at and will improve.”
The one person who converted his starts was Rishabh Pant. Criticised for his fumbling efforts behind the stumps, the left-handed wicketkeeper-batsman blazed to a 97 in Sydney and an 89* in the final Test in Brisbane, where, fittingly, he hit the winning runs.
“His role will be extremely important going ahead. We have always believed that he is one of the exceptional players," Rathour said. "He had a tough time last year or so. But he has been working hard, training hard. We all believed (that) on his day, he is a match-winner. In the last two games he proved that. Being a left-hander is definitely an advantage (for the team).
“As far as his entering the XI (purely) as a batsman, the decision will be taken on that particular day when the question arises."
If Pant was all about flair, Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin were epitomes of grit in the second innings of the third Test in Sydney. For close to four hours, spanning 259 balls, the injured duo batted to put up an unbeaten 62-run partnership to save the Test and keep the series alive.
“Outstanding! Even on the last day in Sydney, the thinking was that we would keep playing normal cricket. We thought if we can keep the wickets intact, we might pull this game off," Rathour said. "We started well. Rishabh played an outstanding innings there. There was a good partnership with Pujara there. I thought the game was on when Rishabh was batting. Unfortunately, Vihari pulled his hamstring and Ashwin had a stiff back. Jadeja, we all knew, was ready (to bat) with a broken thumb. So, once Pujara got out we decided that the game cannot be won from here because there were'nt enough fit players to challenge the Australian total. That was the time we decided that we would try and bat this game out.
"Vihari and Ashwin showed tremendous character to bat out those 42 overs with a torn hamstring and a back strain. Vihari has been batting well throughout the season. Unfortunately, he was not able to convert those starts. To show that character when you are inujred, it was as good as winning."
Vihari and Ashwin were not the only ones to strike a crucial and unlikely partnership. In the final Test, with six wickets down, Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur put on India’s third highest seventh wicket stand of 123 in 217 balls.
“It was the turning point of the game I thought," Rathour said. "We have seen them batting, working extremely hard in the nets. But again, to have that kind of confidence and play the shots...it came at a time when we were struggling as a team and as a batting unit. To put up a 120-run partnership, really brought us back into the game. Then when the fifth day started, we were not writing anything off actually. The message the captain and Ravi bhai gave to the boys was this: 'We will bat normally like we batted throughout the match, take it as long as we can, bat in partnerships, bat out the sessions. Once we reach Tea with wickets in hand, we will plan on taking the game.' To get there Shubman played an extraordinary innings top of the order. Pujara did what he does so well; held on to one end and made sure the partnerships were on. And then of course, once Rishabh started going, we knew that the game was on.”
With so many extraordinary moments to choose from, Rathour said that the one thing to really hold on to going ahead to the England series was the confidence and courage the tour to Australia has given the team.
"The character that the batting unit showed after so many injuries and the start we had in Adelaide. To come back from there, it takes a lot of courage," he said. "It’s a massive confidence boosting series. Hopefully the team will move forward from here."
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