What this series has desperately cried out for is a boxing writer, someone from the glory days of the sport – a Liebling, a Mailer, a Plimpton, a Joyce Carol Oates, someone who can wring compelling narrative out of the blood and sweat and triumph and tears when two evenly-matched champions batter each other to a standstill.
The narrative followed the pattern of a classic heavyweight bout – the cocky champion who waltzes around the ring at the start, anticipating the easy knockout and walking all unsuspecting into the well-prepared challenger’s sucker punch (Pune); the counter-punching offensive in the next game that puts his opponent down on the canvas (Bangalore).
And then the rounds of boxing, testing each other’s techniques, their science, their skill, their legs and hearts, landing blows, drawing blood, hammering each other to a standstill (Ranchi), all of that setting up a final round of phenomenal drama, each knocking down the other, each bouncing off the canvas in their turn and fighting back till those dying moments, that final flurry of punches long after human endurance has been stretched beyond limits, when the legs weaken, the muscles of thigh and calf flutter with effort, the lungs collapse and finally, even the biggest of hearts gives out…
It’s the sort of narrative cricket writers are rarely called on to write – a Test series that swings one way then another, predictable only in its unpredictability is, unlike the epic battles between the likes of Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, a rarity. Gideon Haigh produced one such narrative, on the iconic Ashes series of 2005 – but that is Gideon, among the best sportswriters of our times, writing at concert pitch on a fairytale series, and a lasting regret for me will be that Haigh wasn’t the designated writer for the India-Australia series just completed.
THE last day’s play was a formality – or more accurately, was reduced to a formality when in the second over Steve Smith tossed the ball to Steve O’Keefe. Indian captains do this almost by default – when they have a game to try and win from a seemingly hopeless position, they turn to their spinners, as if it was prescribed in the Vedas or something.
Smith had been stood at slip watching Josh Hazlewood, in the first over of the day, produce deliveries that swung both ways at pace, putting all forms of dismissal – the inside and outside edges, the front and back pads, the stumps – in play. He had a rested Pat Cummins ready to produce one final lung-bursting effort, to push the Indians, to take the fight to the dying minutes of the final round – and he chose to toss the ball to the left-arm spinner O’Keefe. “Brain fade” has, thanks to Smith himself, entered the cricketing glossary, and at the risk of overuse, it applies here.
In the spinner’s second over, KL Rahul smacked him on the off with an immaculate square drive and then produced a perfectly executed sweep, for fours on either side of the wicket. That was pretty much that – the only question at the start of the day was whether Australia would at the fag end of a series where they showed the intent to fight for every inch bring the sort of pressure on India that Bhuvi Kumar and Umesh Yadav produced at the start of the Australian second innings. Once the Indians got away — there were seven runs in O’Keefe’s first over, and nine in the second — that was pretty much that; from that point on, India walked the pooch home with considerable ease.
In one last postscript to an enthralling series, Cummins came on to bowl after those two O’Keefe overs and produced high drama. His very first ball was a sharp bouncer, angling from outside off to leg, lifting at top pace into the batsman.
KL Rahul Murali Vijay (Thanks Jithendra for the correction) slipped inside the line and looked to glide to fine leg; the ball lightly flicked the glove on the way through to Wade but barring a muted yelp from the keeper, no one appealed, at a time when you expected the Australians to have gone up for everything, to show that edge, that desperate desire.
In that one fiery spell, Cummins took Murali Vijay out in a classic quick bowler’s dismissal — ball perfectly in that channel between third and fourth stumps, the sort of delivery that, no matter how many times you have seen it and even succumbed to it, draws you forward for the nick off.
He kept the pressure up, Cheteshwar Pujara tried what batsmen of his class usually do – get the single, get to the other end, settle in. His push into the covers and his call was fair enough; Glenn Maxwell had his head in the game, attacked the ball, ran around it, and the sight of that fielder swooping in caused the hesitation, the throw matched the fielding effort and Pujara was run out by half the length of the pitch. Both wickets fell in that one over, and left you wondering what could have been possible.
India on balance would have nailed the win, but the point of competition is to not make things easy. (With the ask in the teens, David Warner was seen racing from backward square leg, chasing a glance off the pads all the way to the boundary and putting in the dive).
Those dismissals had the unlooked-for result of setting up the sort of contest between a fired up quick bowler a counter-attacking batsman on a pitch with pace and bounce – arguably the best sight in Test cricket.
In a 15-minute passage of play, Cummins and Rahane put on an exhibition.
Sixteenth over of the innings, Cummins steaming in, bowling full length in the channel with shape in the air and Rahane gliding onto the front foot, driving immaculately back down the track to the mid off boundary – game on. The next ball was the predictable response from a fast bowler who has been driven back down – the searing bouncer, and Rahane whiplashed into the hook, a shot rarely seen from Indian batsmen, and played to perfection. Those two shots, and another Rahane boundary in Cummins next over, fired both players up.
Cummins got three on the leg side for the hook and the pull. He came around the wicket – the unapologetically headhunting angle. He bounced, Rahane – a rarity in this Indian line-up, muted and low profile even in his aggressions – hooked with ferocious intent and power, this time hitting the fast bowler slanting into him over midwicket, the shot played off his helmet, among the hardest acts in cricket.
Then came the coup de grace: even before Cummins was into his delivery stride, Rahane backed to leg to free up space on his off, waited for the bouncer, got under it, went up on his toes to make the shot and crashed it flat and hard over cover for another six, a shot so stunning in both conception and execution that it will likely gain meme status on social media.
Steve Smith, Rahane’s IPL captain, stood at slip, hands on head, watching the ball, and the game, sail over the boundary and into the crowd.
If Rahane provided the drama, Rahul personified calm common-sense. Batting with a flowing elegance that is all his own, authoritative in his strokes and tight in his defence, Rahul ended the game and the series with his seventh fifty of this series.
Australia had stayed competitive, more often than not running in front of the game, for almost the entirety of the series. But they ran out of gas on the third day and paid for it on the fourth.
Which, when think of it, pretty much defines Test cricket between evenly matched teams — in the final analysis, it all comes down to nerve. To who holds it, and who loses it.
India, to draw analogy from another sport, replicated the template of the marathon runner. For most of this series it sat parked just behind the shoulder of the pace-setter, waited for its moment, and produced that kick in the legs that marks the real champion runner to take over the lead and, in doing that, cut both legs and heart out from the opponent.