Vodafone Test Series v India
Defiant India hold on for famous draw to set up decider
India's battered and bruised line-up refused to yield to Australia's attack on an SCG pitch that held up well, sending the series to the Gabba locked at 1-1
11 January 2021, 11:30 PM AEST
Crippled by injury and scorned by pundits, Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin stood unmoved in the face of hostile bowling and a weight of history to secure a famous draw against Australia and set up a compelling finale to the Vodafone Test Series later this week.
It seemed scarcely credible that India could avoid defeat when the top half of their batting order was knocked over with more than 40 overs remaining in the day, and their sole remaining specialist batter Vihari barely able to move due to injury.
But they endured against the world's best all-round bowling attack on a worn fifth-day SCG pitch where only one team in the past 139 years – South Africa in the third Test of 1963-64 – have lasted more deliveries in the fourth innings of a Test than the 786 flung at them across two days.
India might have drawn the Test, leaving the fate of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy (which they hold) to be decided at the Gabba from Friday, but they won deserved plaudits and a bevy of admirers for bravely holding out in the face of daunting odds.
Battered on the pitch and belittled from over the boundary fence, with their captain and best player at home in Mumbai having departed in the aftermath of his team's worst-ever Test batting effort, India found a resilience and shared spirit that will send them to the decisive fourth Test with the belief they can achieve anything.
Certainly, their inner sanctum must have been among the dwindling few that saw hope when stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane fell in the day's second over.
And despite fanciful mutterings of an unprecedented win chasing 407 in the final innings that gained volume as Rishabh Pant brazenly counter-attacked and Cheteshwar Pujara stood in silent defiance, the cause was seemingly lost when that pair departed in the second session.
But new heroes emerged from an India dressing room that had come to resemble a field hospital as the visitors' casualty toll mounted.
Vihari, who had survived a total of 151 deliveries in four innings of the series prior to today, tore his right hamstring so badly in running a single midway through the day that he gave up trying to score, yet endured for 161 balls.
And Ashwin, elevated in the batting order because Ravindra Jadeja copped a fractured thumb when hit while batting in the first innings, was pummelled on the arms and upper body when Australia's fast bowlers resumed after tea with fire in their bellies and blood in the nostrils.
At that stage, with a ball just 16 overs old and one hobbled batting specialist plus a wounded allrounder and three card-carrying tailenders to get through, history and instinct meant the hosts retained favouritism.
After creating more anxious moments than genuine opportunities, Australia's bowlers shifted their attack from sternums to stumps and – with less than 10 overs remaining in the match – finally drew a false stroke from Vihari, but the chance was missed by skipper Tim Paine.
Having grassed a couple of difficult edges off Pant when he was 3 and 56, and on his way to a belligerent 97, Paine seemed to have the catch that flew from Vihari's bat off Mitchell Starc covered as he threw himself to his right.
But it struck his outstretched glove and bounced in front of first slip, capping a forgettable 24 hours for the skipper, who was docked 15 per cent of his match payment and had a demerit point added to his Test rap sheet after pleading guilty to showing dissent to an umpire's decision.
When Paine decided no result could be achieved with one over of the mandated final hour's worth to bowl, the stalemate produced vastly different reactions from the rival camps.
India's players beamed and congratulated one another, and metaphorically embraced their two warriors (in socially distanced fashion) as they left the field, while Australia's players bore the look of exhausted frustration.
Both teams now face a crucial couple of days to gird themselves for the series decider at the Gabba, where Australia have not lost a Test since 1988.
India's resources will be stretched to the limit with Vihari and Jadeja unlikely to play, and Pant and Ashwin nursing painful blows with fast bowlers Mohammed Shami (fractured arm) and Umesh Yadav (calf strain) already lost to injury.
In addition to picking themselves up after failing to close out a Test match they dominated for much of the first four days, Australia also await the results of scans on the right shoulder of debutant opener Will Pucovski, who hurt himself diving in the field during today's drama.
It had taken Australia just three balls of the ultimate day to land their first blow – to Pujara's left arm as a brutish bouncer from Pat Cummins slammed into the batter's protected forearm before thudding into his left shoulder.
A further ten balls into the morning session, the home team made their initial breakthrough and paved the way to what many expected would be a perfunctory dismantling of an India batting line-up that previously displayed its propensity to implode.
That anticipation grew with the wicket of Rahane, India's stand-in skipper, and not only for the significance of the scalp, but the manner in which it was claimed.
Acknowledged as a master of combatting spin bowling, Rahane failed to smother Nathan Lyon's sharp turn and squeezed a sharp chance from the inside edge of his defensive bat towards the left ankle of Matthew Wade at short leg who snaffled the catch.
It was the 10th time Lyon had dismissed Rahane in Tests – a feat no other bowler has matched – and it raised the prospect of an early finish given the only other batter to have fallen to Lyon so many times was Pujara.
More pertinently, it was the first time in the series Lyon was able to bowl on a fifth-day pitch having sent down 88 of his 91 overs prior to this morning on tracks displaying three days of wear and tear at the oldest.
The manner in which Pant set out on his innings suggested India were focused more on survival than success.
He had scored just three from nine balls faced when he offered a chance that would come to haunt the hosts, a thin edge pushing forward to Lyon that struck the fingertips of Paine's left glove and went quickly to ground.
And having absorbed 33 deliveries to reach five, Pant clearly decided adopting a foreign game plan of pushing and prodding would serve neither his team's cause nor his peace of mind, so he launched himself at Australia's somewhat stunned bowlers instead.
Beaten by the first ball of Lyon's seventh over of the day, Pant slipped into overdrive and twice charged Australia's premier spinner and unleashed lofted on-drives that brought four and then six.
Another pair of boundaries from Lyon's next over – through cover and over the bowler's head – brought a change in tactics as Marnus Labuschagne entered the attack from the Randwick end and Lyon swung to the Paddington soon after.
It brought no such amendment to Pant's approach, rather inciting him to swing harder and more often as he welcomed his rival back to the bowling crease with consecutive sixes (over extra cover and long-on) to reach 50, the last 45 runs of which had come from 31 balls.
Some of the strokes Pant unfurled might have invited comparisons with West Indies great Brian Lara, who plundered 277 at the same venue 28 years ago, but it was a more contemporary counterattack from another audacious left-hander that surely stirred in Australia's memory.
The famous Headingley Test of 2019 was another in which Paine's team entered the final phase seemingly bound for victory before Ben Stokes swung at everything and Australia lost their cool and, ultimately, the match.
There seemed a similar sense of anxiety at the SCG as Pant mixed sturdy defence with blatant bravado, and Australia's belief he would eventually miscue a mighty heave was incrementally replaced by a dread he might just lift India to within striking distance of an unthinkable win.
The T20 feel was heightened by Paine's dizzying rotation of bowlers as he searched for a remedy.
Two overs after relocating to the Randwick end, Lyon returned to his original plan and allrounder Cameron Green came on for an over to facilitate the swap.
It meant that in the space of a breathless half-hour, Australia deployed five bowlers – Lyon, Green, Labuschagne, Mitchell Starc and eventually Cummins – in spells of no more than two overs and Pant earned another reprieve (on 56) when Paine grassed another hot chance off Lyon.
With Pant on 73 and the deficit narrowed to 200, Lyon finished the morning session bowling to Australia's new nemesis with five fielders scattered to various boundary posts.
When Pujara posted a contrasting half-century from 171 balls faced, and India closed in on 250 for the loss of just three wickets, it appeared the Test's decisive stanza would come with the arrival of the second new-ball, which was due less than an hour after lunch.
But that moment was reached in the final over with the old ball, against the theme of the day when Pant perished within a blow of what would have been one of the great Test hundreds of recent history.
After thrashing successive boundaries off Green, Pant helped himself to a couple more from consecutive balls in Lyon's next over to reach 97 before deciding the best way to reach three figures was with another inside-out flay over cover.
The mis-hit Australia had been awaiting for a couple of hours arrived at the cruellest juncture for Pant and his growing fanbase as the ball bounced from the footmarks and sliced to Cummins at backward point, who clutched it successfully, if awkwardly.
Lyon's triumphal roar was framed as the abject antithesis to Pant's despair, as the India hero kicked the boundary rope in frustration as he crossed before summoning the strength to drag himself up the steps to the dressing room where teammates stood as one in recognition.
Five deliveries later, Australia took the new ball and in less than an hour Vihari's hamstring was ripped and Pujara's stumps spread-eagled as India's ambitious escape to victory became a salvage operation mounted by the walking wounded.
Vodafone Test Series v India 2020-21
Australia Test squad: Tim Paine (c), Sean Abbott, Pat Cummins, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Moises Henriques, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Will Pucovski, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade, David Warner
India Test squad: Ajinkya Rahane (captain), Rohit Sharma (vice-captain), Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, Cheteshwar Pujara, Hanuma Vihari, Shubman Gill, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Rishabh Pant (wk), Jasprit Bumrah, Navdeep Saini, Kuldeep Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur, Thangarasu Natarajan
First Test: Australia won by eight wickets
Second Test: India won by eight wickets
Third Test: Test drawn
Fourth Test: January 15-19, Gabba, 11am AEDT