Column | Team India punching above their weight

Shardul Thakur celebrates with teammates after dismissing Marcus Harris in the Brisbane Test. Photo: AFP

When was the last time that a top class side in international cricket took the field in a Test with a set of bowlers whose combined experience amounted to four matches and a collective tally of 11 wickets? One commentator observed pithily that the Indian bowling attack for the fourth game of the ongoing series at Brisbane was the most inexperienced one since 1933, when India played their first ever Test on Indian soil. When one finds that Mohamed Siraj, who is playing in his third Test following his debut at Melbourne, is the senior most bowler, one can understand the extent of problems confronted by the Indian team management on this front.

During India’s tour of Australia in 1967-68, skipper Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was forced to miss the first Test of the series due to a tear of his hamstring muscle. When Pataudi played a brilliant knock, despite limping on account of the injury, during the next match, Bill O’Reilly, the famous leg spinner and commentator of those years said that the Indian skipper was playing with one leg, one eye (the other lost in an accident) and one arm (due to absence of fast bowlers in his team). If O’Reilly had been around, he would have said that Ajinkya Rahane, the Indian captain, was leading the side with both his hands tied behind his back!

Further shocks were in store for the visitors after the match got underway as Navdeep Saini was forced to leave the field due to a strain to his groin while bowling his eighth over and could not bowl again during the innings. However, Thangarasu Natarajan and Washington Sundar, the two debutants, rose to the occasion and toiled, to pick up three wickets apiece, as the Australian first innings ended at 369. It was evident that the  inexperienced Indian bowlers had succeeded in preventing the Aussie batsmen from lording it over them.

Conventional wisdom in cricket suggests that one needs a good set of bowlers to win Test matches, while a batting line-up that runs deep would help to prevent a defeat. This was in evidence during the first three Tests of the present series where the hosts and the visitors have so far shared the honours. Australia bowled brilliantly in the first Test to dismiss India for their lowest ever Test total of 36 while the Indian bowlers held the upper hand in the second game to win the match for their side. The third Test saw the Aussie bowlers having an upper hand during the first three days but Indian batsmen fought back during the last two days to thwart them, thus denying the hosts a win.

Hanuma Vihari braved a hamstring injury to help India earn a draw in the Sydney Test. File photo: AFP

The performance of Indian batsmen in the fourth innings at Sydney has been widely hailed as one their best efforts in recent times. When Tim Paine, the Aussie skipper, declared his second innings closed on fourth day, setting India a target of 407, he would have expected his bowlers to take the side home comfortably on the last day. But the Indian batsmen held firm and played resolute cricket to hold the visitors to a draw. The significance of this achievement can be understood only when compared with the performance of a much stronger Indian batting line-up at the same venue 13 years ago.

The second Test of the series between India and Australia in 2007-08 is generally accepted as one of the most acrimonious games between the two sides ever. India came to Sydney after losing the first Test by a big margin, which indicated that the hosts, led by Ricky Ponting, was the stronger side by a mile. But India struck back strongly and reduced the Aussies to 134/6, but a series of umpiring gaffes and a stroke-filled century by Andrew Symonds helped Australia recover and reach a total of 463.

India replied strongly with centuries from Sachin Tendulkar and V V S Laxman and gained a first innings lead of 69. The hosts went for quick runs in the second knock and piled up 401/7 before declaring their innings closed just before lunch on the last day. Thus, India was set a target of 333 runs, which was near to impossible as only two sessions of play remained. But this gave the Aussies an outside chance to win the game, if they could dismiss the visitors in the 71 overs available for their bowlers.

One would have expected a batting order comprising Tendulkar, Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Wasim Jaffer and Yuvraj Singh to hold fort and keep the Aussie bowlers at bay. But this did not happen as India were bowled out for 210 in 70.5 overs, with part-time bowler Michael Clarke taking three wickets off five balls in the last over!

Though India were distinctly unlucky to get a couple of unfavourable decisions against their batsmen, it should be admitted that the batsmen, despite their class and repute, lacked the grit, craft and tenacity required to battle it out and survive on a wicket that was wearing down on the final day.

Australian captain Tim Paine congratulates R Ashwin at the end of the Sydney Test. Photo: AFP

At Sydney in 2021, the challenges faced by the Indian batsmen were more severe and daunting. In the first place, the Aussie bowlers had twice as much time and overs to dismiss the Indian batsmen. The Aussie attack of 2008 comprising Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Stuart Clark, Brag Hogg, Symonds and Clarke had a career of haul of 959 wickets in Tests, while the present set consisting of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazzlewood, Mitchell, Starc and Nathan Lyon have more than 1,000 scalps to their credit.

The names of Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly, Yuvraj and Dhoni certainly command greater awe and respect than the likes of Rohit Sharma, Shubhman Gill, Cheteswar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari and Rishabh Pant. But at Sydney, the underdogs showed that they carried with them more fight and spunk than their more experienced and formidable predecessors who went down tamely at the same venue 13 years ago.

A special word needs to be put in about Pant and Vihari who both played a frontline role in shaping the Indian resistance. No Indian player has faced as much criticism and received so many hate mails as Pant did during the last two years. He had shown first indications of his prodigious talent by scoring Test centuries in England and Australia in 2018-19.

He is blessed with the amazing ability to sight the ball early and possesses a tremendous range of strokes that helps him to hit the red cherry wherever he wishes to. His presence at the crease and the positive energy he brings to the Indian batting were vital aspects that helped the side at both Melbourne and Sydney.

At 23, he is still very young and will get better as far as his temperament and shot selection are concerned. We need to show more patience with him and understand the predicaments that a youngster faces when faced with the requirements of batting in three different versions of the game at an early age.

Vihari displayed courage and fortitude of the highest order in thwarting the Aussie bowlers, who smelt blood when Pant and Pujara were dismissed on the last day. With an injured Ravindra Jadeja ruled out of the game, it was obvious that one more wicket would propel Australia towards victory.

But Vihari braved a hamstring injury, that affected his ability to use his feet while batting and prevented him from taking singles, and the aggressive Australians to deny them the wicket they needed badly. He faced 161 balls, scoring only 23 runs, but his unbeaten knock was of such monumental significance to the side that it was better than a century, as Ravichandran Aswin, his partner at the other end, put it.

Finally a word about skipper Rahane. Unlike at Melourne, Rahane was not among the runs at Sydney. But he led the side with aplomb, making best use of the sparse resources at his command. The adverse conditions in Australia have brought out the best in this player - both as batsman and skipper. He may not be asked to lead the side when Virat Kohli returns but Rahane has shown in this interlude that he possesses the skillsets to make a successful leader should he be called upon to do so in the future.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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