What the last day of a Test match taught me about life
Experts often say that test cricket mirrors life. This is a story of how I experienced it myself.
“Across formats, I batted 604 times for India. I didn't cross 50 runs 410 times out of those innings.I failed a lot more times than I succeeded. I'm more a failure than a success.”
This was said by Rahul Sharad Dravid, someone who was born on 11 January 1973. Exactly 47 years before a hospital-ward of an Indian men’s cricket team would display one of the finest examples of rearguard action with grit and character we often associate Dravid with.
A lot beautiful things have been said, and more will be, to describe this effort by Team India, but for me, it felt personal. Personal, not in the way that I-proposed-to-my-partner-while-watching-it or my-long-lost-brother-called-me-after-the-match, but personal because the way this last day of the test match panned out, I found answers to the questions I've been maniacally searching for all this while.
Don’t know if it’s the pandemic fatigue or the perpetual Kafkaesque neo-liberal Capitalist reality, but life and its unending challenges had started feeling like a vicious cycle I could not come out of. The daily grind full of misery and stagnation was crushing the spirit that I’ve always prided myself on.
I couldn’t recognise myself, for I couldn’t summon all the abilities that I could blindly count on. I was at a dead-end in a long winter, while the rest of the world had started celebrating the upcoming summer. I daresay that the Indian men’s cricket team found itself in a similar situation.
On a long tour inside a bio-bubble, cut-off from the world, not having its talismanic captain in Kohli and losing three of its first-team pacers made it a team that’s Team India on paper, but on-field it was only half the unit. As if the team had suddenly found itself without the wheels that drove it to the highest of the laurels in the last few years.
Adding literal insult to injury (-ies), India folded for mere 36 runs in the Adelaide test - the lowest in its long and proud test cricket history. The country and the world had turned against the team, pundits and former players had started predicting a whitewash and humiliation at the hands of the Aussies.
But no one anticipated the turnaround the team would show in the next test at Melbourne. With questions over recent inconsistencies and even his place in the team, Rahane had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Half the team, the humiliation of 36 and the huge monkey of captaincy on the back - on paper Rahane seemed like the sacrificial lamb walking into the Melbourne Test. A bit like how I was feeling that the world around me was waiting for me to fail and never rise again.
Rahane and his team proved everyone wrong. The captain instilled a workman-like ethic in the team and this team defined by have-nots squeezed a famous victory against arguably the greatest bowling attack in world cricket. Rahane scored an imperious, yet hard-earned century, Ravindra Jadeja played perfect fiddle, and the bowling attack led by Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah made all the pundits and the world sense some steel in this team.
But wins are momentary. Before you can celebrate your efforts and soak in the praises, life throws the next test at you, the next challenge, the next bouquet of pain. And as a rule of thumb, the intensity of this challenge is always greater than the last.
A lot like how every morning you wake up to a clean slate - a new set of professional demands, personal issues and a future to secure. Yesterday’s win has no effect on these hungry demons, waiting for us to crumble.
Between the Melbourne win and the next test at Sydney, I had to suddenly confront all the problems I have been brushing under the carpet. I was still half the unit, away from home, fearing if this is when I come undone.
Despite the confidence from the win, Team India still had all the problems it did before the Melbourne Test. The Sydney test was yet another chance for the world to witness the weaknesses team India had brushed under the carpet.
India had lost another experienced pacer to injury Umesh Yadav, with a green Navdeep Saini getting his call up. While Rohit Sharma finally came out of quarantine to don the whites. But no one seemed to be convinced with these changes. While Saini had a forgettable IPL and the limited-overs series, Rohit had hardly any success in test cricket.
But the show must go on, right?
It did, but this time modern great Steve Smith decided to make India’s woes more apparent. On the back of his century and brilliant fifties from Pucovski and Labuschagne, Australia put up a massive total of 338. In reply, India folded for just 244, with only Pujara and Shubman Gill barely touching 50.
Things had already started looking up for the mighty Australians. Their batting mainstay was back in runs and their already fantastic bowling unit had wrapped India to give them a lead over 100 runs. Meanwhile, in the Indian camp things had become more grim. Their mercurial all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja had dislocated his left thumb to a nasty bouncer and the pugnacious Rishabh Pant had an elbow injury so bad that he could not even lift the pain-killer that was brought for him in the first innings.
Neither Pant nor Jadeja took the field the next morning as Australia piled up another 312 runs before declaring around tea. Tim Paine and co. could almost sense victory and a lead in the series.
Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill gave India a solid start, putting up a partnership of 71. But just before the end of play, India lost both its openers to persistent chin-music from Cummins and Hazlewood. On the crease were Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, two senior statesmen with Australia still 314 runs ahead. If India had any hope, these were two. After all, it was only Hanuma Vihari who was a batsman left in the line-up and didn’t have an injury yet. Jadeja was ruled out of the series, Pant was grimacing while facing throwdowns - still unsure if he’ll be able to bat the next morning. At the end of the day, Pant had been deemed to be fit enough to bat "only if necessary".
The next morning, if things could get any worse for India, it did. India lost its captain Rahane in the second over from a blinder of a catch from Pat Cummins.
I had not been sleeping well lately. That morning, I woke up all sticky and anxious at 6 AM (IST). Usually that’d be midnight for me, and I’d force myself to fall asleep again, but that morning I instinctively started playing the test match on my phone. What I witnessed over the next 6 hours would give me every reason to never lose hope.
People are calling it the great escape or the Indian heist - but to me - what happened on the last day was a life lesson.
After Rahane was gone, Rishabh Pant was sent to bat, shocking everyone. No one in their sane mind would send the swashbuckling left-hander in a situation where all you need to do is ‘see-ball, defend ball’. But Pant had other plans.
In the first 35-40 deliveries, Pant had barely scored anything, just like his partner at the other end Cheteshwar Pujara would do. But after that it was carnage at the hand of Pant and resistance by the willow of Pujara. Even Pujara had had his share of painkillers to forget about his injured finger, but in his partnership with Pant, it’s the Australians who seemed to have forgotten that the win was supposed to be easy.
Suddenly one could sense a great story of survival on a surreal day of test cricket, and for me, life.
After playing the innings of his lifetime, Pant departed on 97, and Pujara followed suit after scoring 77 runs. The Australians were in the driver’s seat again. A lot like how life reminds you that nothing is done, nothing is certain, until it really is.
Like life, the test had suddenly turned the other way after giving India a glimmer of hope. After all, hope doesn’t alone make things happen, you need grit and determination to see it through.
That’s what the duo of Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin brought. And what they did would even push the previous partnership to second spot in the podium of excellence.
Ashwin had been dealing with back pain from the start of the fourth day's play. His movement had been restricted quite a bit but he still battled it out to bowl 19 overs and even get his nemesis Steve Smith out yet again. It got so bad later in the day that he could barely even sit or lie down. When he arrived at the SCG on Monday morning, it wasn't better. He simply couldn't even bend down and stayed on his feet, trying his best to keep his body mobile.
At the other end was Vihari, who'd done considerable damage to his hamstring very early in his innings. That he even could get himself to stay on his feet for as long as he did seemed a massive effort, forget having to battle the might of Cummins and Hazlewood trying to bounce you out, when they're not trying to crush your toes, on one leg. It seemed obvious at one point that Vihari had been given a choice by the physio to walk off. But he nearly turned his back to Patel at that point. There were even times when the coaching staff couldn't bear to watch as he hobbled up or down the pitch. This was the same person who had a horrid tour so far. No big score to show, dropped catches and uncertainty if he’ll have his place in the test team.
Two injured players, out of which one could barely walk, with no batting to come - This was supposed to be easy for the Australians. Maybe that’s what Matthew Wade was pondering upon when he sledged Ashwin from short-leg asking “Aren’t you supposed to be injured as well.”
And if back pain wasn’t enough, the mighty Aussie quicks made sure that he would get injured with their fiery bouncers. He had been hit and bruised at multiple places including his shoulder and ribs. At a point Ashwin took his thigh-pad out to use it to protect his ribs.
This was a hard harmony between the two. Not melodious, not sweet on ears, but tough, stable metronome. Bit like life's own humdrum hum.
As Harsha Bhogle said, India had one bowling-all rounder, one hamstring and one hand to save the match. And they did, displaying unbelievable amounts of grit, repetition and determination. India batted 131 overs in the last innings - only the sixth instance of a team batting for more than 130 overs (of six balls) to save a Test in Australia. But that number may not mean anything if you don’t know under what circumstances they did so. Ball in, ball out, Vihari and Ashwin just dead batted and stood the ground. Two otherwise ordinary batsmen displayed extraordinary determination to deny Australia the victory.
Not often had a bunch of men, all needing painkillers to even stand their ground, come together in this fashion to save the day for their team and country. India might not have pulled off a famous win, but what they did was in some ways even greater. It was a triumph of will and character that will perhaps remain etched as deeply in the history of Indian cricket as any of their greatest wins on foreign soil.
That’s what life is about right? When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Much like India, there would be matches that you won’t win, but sometimes not losing is more satisfactory than winning itself. Once you start finding the romace in clenched-teeth defiance to loss, perhaps it becomes easier dealing with the hurly-burly of the daily. Winning and losing is often not in our hands, but there's an immense victory in resisting the tide. That's all us we can hope to do. This effort from Team India was an ode to that place beyond winning and losing.
This last day of the test match made me belief that there’s no other way than grinding to deal with the beautiful tragedy that is test cricket, I mean life.