India entered the final day of the Sydney Test with 309 runs more to be scored in the three sessions with minimum of 98 overs to be bowled. They had lost two wickets the previous evening and one of their batsmen had a fractured thumb, while another was recovering from an injured forearm. There were two more batsmen who got injured during the course of play. And to add to that India lost their captain Ajinkya Rahane, the centurion of the last match, in the second over of the day. Many believed that now the game could go only one way, i.e. an Australian victory was imminent. However, a group of certain individuals believed differently and it is their belief only that mattered. Rishabh Pant, in company of Cheteshwar Pujara, played an innings of his lifetime that changed the complexion of the game completely. For a brief moment a highly improbable win seemed to be within India’s reach. Australia, however, made a comeback with the wickets of Pant and Pujara within a space of 10 overs. Vihari incurred a hamstring injury quite early in his innings while attempting a quick single. Ashwin too had a sore back that made body movements quite painful. However both the players endured the pain and weathered the Australian attack for a 43-over blockathon. This ensured that India would share the points with Australia for the World Test Championship.
After an early departure of Rahane- being caught at short leg trying to defend Lyon’s off spinner- Pant was promoted to No. 5. Pant, as he has done in his previous innings, provided the required momentum to the Indian innings. He was a bit cautious to start with and even got a reprieve as Paine dropped an edge off Lyon. But he did not let it bother him and with a six off Lyon over long-on found his touch. He continued with his aggressive intent as he sent Lyon over the rope twice more to complete his half century. Pujara provided an able support from the other end with his defensive skills. However he did not let the pressure build by rotating the strike and hitting occasional boundaries. At lunch, India needed just above 200 runs with 7 wickets intact and Pant at his aggressive best.
Post lunch, Pant continued in the same vein playing some exquisite drives to the boundary. Even Pujara got into his groove and the scoreboard was ticking fast providing a slight hope of win to the Indian fans. Pujara completed his patient half century and also his 6000 test runs. With the second new ball round the corner, Pant tried to accumulate a few quick runs. He played some expansive drives against pacers and used his feet well against spinners. He even got lucky a few times when he was dropped twice by Paine or when his edges flew through vacant slip region. However, with just three runs short of his century, Pant got out trying to play an inside out stroke against Lyon only to get an outside edge for Cummins at point. His 118-ball 97 had 3 big hits and 12 boundaries. It was an extra-ordinary display of batsmanship considering the situation of the game and that of the 5th-day pitch against world’s best attack.
Hazlewood provided the second big blow when he castled Pujara with the second new ball. Pujara’s 77 off 205 balls had 12 boundaries.
Vihari’s hamstring injury prevented him from taking quick singles. Since next in line after Ashwin were an injured Jadeja and three fast bowlers, being retired hurt was not an option. Ashwin too was struggling with his fitness as a sore back prevented him from playing freely. However being inspired from South Africa’s blockathon against Australia at Adelaide a few years ago, both Ashwin and Vihari decided to go into 100 per cent defensive mode. They offered dead bat to every ball and with a rub of the green did it successfully.
Australian pacers tested the batsmen with a flurry of short balls and a few body blows but it did not deter the resilience of Vihari and Ashwin. There were a few edges that fell in no-man’s land and the one that went into keeper’s hands was off the arm-guard. Vihari, the more accomplished of the two batsmen, faced the pacers from one end, while Ashwin negotiated his counterpart Lyon from the other end.
With just 10 overs to go in the last hour of play, Australia got one final opportunity. Vihari edged Starc’s delivery bowled round the stumps, only to be spilled by a diving Paine to add to his horrid day behind the stumps. The 259-ball 62 runs unbroken partnership for the sixth wicket by the physically and mentally exhausted pair of Ashwin and Vihari denied Australia a very certain victory. Vihari faced 161 deliveries for his gritty innings of 23 with 4 4s while Ashwin played 128 balls for his 39 with 9 4s. Their defensive skills were a perfect tribute to the birthday boy Rahul Dravid.
At the end of the day, we got to witness Test cricket at its absolute best. The game was tilted towards Australia to start with, however the balance shifted in either directions a few times to finally settle in the centre. A showcase of relentless bowling attack countered by a resilient batting effort. A true test of character, skill and strength- both mental and physical. The series stands levelled at 1-1 with final Test to be played in Brisbane.
Statistical highlights from the match: https://allaboutcric.com/editor/a-walk-to-remember-for-ages/