Tim Paine had hinted before the start of the Sydney Test that the rather “unusually tame” series would spring to life in Sydney. His prediction for more than one reason turned out right as grit, determination and a lot of character were on display at the Sydney Cricket Ground as R Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari battled through the entire final session with India eking out a hard-fought drawn.
The fortunes of the third Test yo-yo’d between India and Australia with both teams in with chances to pull off respective wins in the first two sessions. Both sides had their chances to push for a win, a draw looking highly improbable at one stage. However, Ashwin and Vihari, against all odds pulled off a stunner in Sydney – a result that hopefully overshadows the other incidents that threatened to take the spotlight away from the cricket played.
Vihari was carrying a hamstring injury throughout his innings, but battled on bravely, just seeing through Australia’s overs one after another. Ashwin handled Nathan Lyon’s spin that he seemed quite comfortable against, while Vihari saw out the Australian pacers in their unbeaten fifty-run stand that came in 44-plus overs. At the start of the final session, Ashwin copped a few body blows; he was tested by some stinging short-ball bowling from Pat Cummins with top edges and miscues falling safe, but didn’t give up. Fortune favoured the brave pair as their defiance was the longest that India ended up batting in the fourth innings in 41 years. Ashwin was dropped by Seam Abbott at square leg, but thereafter the pair batted on for almost over three hours to save the Test match in one of the finest rearguard actions in Indian cricket.
The Test, however, would in retrospect feel like one of missed chances. Australia were firm favourites to go 2-1 up in the series after setting India a total in excess of 400. India started well in the chase, and complemented by Rishabh Pant’s enterprising 97, India were in with a chance to chase it down with less than 150 to get. However, Pant and Cheteshwar Pujara departing in quick succession, brought Australia back into the game with just five wickets to get. Australia dropped a few catches in the innings on the final day, which didn’t help their cause, with Ashwin and Vihari marching on as the hosts’ bowlers tired.
Pant was just three runs away from a spectacular century, which would have been his second in Australia. Without being bogged down by the nervous 90s, back to back boundaries off Nathan Lyon took him to 97. It was a shot one too many against Lyon at a crucial stage of the match when a mishit was taken sharply by Pat Cummins at backward point, hampering India’s hopes of pulling off a miraculous win. At the beginning of the session, India were in firm control of proceedings, by the end, with the two big wickets of Pant and Pujara, Australia bounced back for some parity with India going to Tea at 280 for 5.
Given that Pant, who was promoted over Vihari to No.5, was dropped twice off Lyon once on 3 and the other on 56 by Paine, it was redemption for Lyon, especially after how the ‘keeper-bat went after him, taking him to the cleaners. What the wicket did was not just end the match-altering 148-run stand between Pant and Pujara, but took victory slightly further away. It wasn’t a typical Pant innings, who started slowly to find his feet, scoring 7 off 36 balls at the start before switching gears to then get to 50 off just 64 balls. He kept the scoreboard ticking with singles, boundaries and even clobbered Lyon for back-to-back boundaries including a six over long-on. Paine persisted with his best bowler for a fifth-day wicket, but Pant smashed him for a couple of sixes, his discomfort from the injury hardly visible in that quickfire knock. Pant’s aggression complemented Pujara’s calm as the pair worked their way to a 100-run stand for the fourth wicket in the opening session, giving India an outside chance to push for a win if it came down to that.
After Pant fell, Pujara switched gears and attacked the Australian pacers, smashing Cummins for three successive boundaries getting the scoreboard moving swiftly after getting to his second fifty of the match as India’s scoring rate was very healthy in the first hour after lunch. Vihari took as many as 17 balls to get off the mark, with his injury not making run-scoring easy for him. Meanwhile, Hazlewood returned to knock over Pujara of a beautiful inswinging delivery that kept low and straightened a tad bit after pitching as victory seemed in sight for Australia with India’s top and middle-order back in the shed.
Australia had their tails up early on the final day after Nathan Lyon struck as early as in the second over of the day to eke out a nudge from Ajinkya Rahane who was caught at short leg by Matthew Wade. Lyon then got a faint edge off Pant that was dropped by Paine, as Australia seemed in control of proceedings. From one end Pat Cummins was getting some movement with Pujara covering it, while also using his feet against Lyon unsettling the offspinner’s lengths. Nothing worked for Lyon as edges fell short and the chances that carried weren’t taken by Paine, who put down Pant twice in the session. The second drop was a replica of the first, the only difference being a fainter edge, but Pant survived, which is what mattered for India, as India gave themselves a chance in the Test.
All in all, it was a spectacular day with Test cricket being the real winner. The four Australian bowlers tried everything they had, but the pair of Vihari and Ashwin negotiated everything thrown at them robustly. It was a ‘blockathon’ of sorts that lasted 258 balls before both sides shook hands.
Brief scores: Australia 338 (Steve Smith 131; Ravindra Jadeja 4-62) & 312/6 dec (Marnus Labuschagne 73, Steve Smith 81, Cameron Green 84; Navdeep Saini 2-54, R Ashwin 2-95) drew with India 244 (Shubman Gill 50; Pat Cummins 4-29) & 334/5 (Shubman Gill 31, Rohit Sharma 52, Rishabh Pant 97, Cheteshwar Pujara 77 R Ashwin 39; Josh Hazlewood 2-39, Nathan Lyon 2-114).