Piece de resistance: It’s Cummins vs India

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Pat Cummins watches from the non-striker’s end as Ravindra Jadeja and Virat Kohli celebrate the dismissal of Tim Paine on Day Four of the third Test in Melbourne. (AP)

It was 6.25 pm local time and the sky above was dark grey when the sweat-soaked pair of Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon trudged back to the dressing room, amidst rippling applause from the crowd. Between themselves, they hardly spoke a word or looked at each other, their faces, when the camera zoomed in, were as grim as the looming drizzle and defeat, but for 86 deliveries they resolutely defied India’s hopes of wrapping up the match on the fourth day. In the context of the game, their fight could only drag the contest into the fifth day, but they redeemed a fabled virtue of Australia that has only flickered sporadically in the series, the courage to keep fighting in the face of adversity.

It was at 5.21 pm that Lyon joined Cummins in the middle. Australia were 100 overs away from salvaging a draw, and 184 runs shy of the target. With the wickets of only themselves and Josh Hazlewood intact, they needed a more tangible goal. The task, then, was to survive the day, stave off abject humiliation.

Virat Kohli and his troops made Australia’s proximity to the defeat all the more evident, clapping, chuckling, upping the banter ante, jumping and hopping around, restlessly waiting for the moment they would pile into a celebratory heap. Just like Australian teams of the past. It seemed a formality then (it remains a formality even now), two balls were all it would take to whip off the tail, they had 39 minutes of regular time, a prospective 30-minute extension and a new ball due in nine overs. Surely, the Aussies wouldn’t live another day.

Explained

Why bouncer on slower track is effective

Jasprit Bumrah didn’t miss the fact that four Indians had got out to bouncers in the first innings on a slow pitch. He tried it soon and pinged the helmet of Marcus Harris late on second evening. Next morning, he would try again, this time getting Harris caught at fine-leg. Bouncers on a slow pitch are very effective as it’s not only counter-intuitive to batsmen but it upsets their technique. Most batsmen are used to ducking, but the slowness of the track means the bowlers can pitch it real short and still have it homing on the head. They won’t sail harmlessly over as it would on other tracks. They don’t like to sway on a slow track as many a time the ball doesn’t bounce as much as they expect. They are almost forced to either fend it off defensively like Hanuma Vihari did against Pat Cummins or play an awkward hook as Harris did off Bumrah.

But they battled to live another day. It was an all-too familiar rearguard, they had irritated India in Adelaide where they added 31 runs and breathed life into the match and in the end, made it closer. It was a steeper task here, but like in Adelaide they didn’t fold up easily, no matter how hard or radically the Indian bowlers tried to materialise their plans. It began with the conventional plan to rattle them with yorkers. Mohammed Shami flung a swerving yorker at Lyon, who just about retrieved the ball from beneath his bat. Shami sighed, Kohli sniggered and Rishabh Pant gave a pep-talk: “Aayega aayega, Shami bhai.”

An authoritative knock

From the other end, Kohli re-introduced Ishant Sharma, bristling in with the breeze. A spate of full deliveries followed, all of which Pat Cummins stoutly defended with the eloquence of a top-order batsman, unhurried, upright and unperturbed, without any visible tiredness of having bowled 35 overs, picking nine wickets, and batting for an hour in the first innings. As if he’s a robot fitted with an artificial intelligence chip.

While his bowling has always been raved about — the pace, aggression and discipline — his batting had seldom been discussed as fervently as it’s now. At best, they’d appreciate his resilience, the correctness of his forward defence or the brute force of his cuts. But exhausting reams on a No. 8’s batting prowess is an oxymoron, or best a lazy exercise, nothing to devote time on. Until Saturday that is, when he stitched up the most authoritative knock by an Australian batsmen in the series.

Kohli’s varied responses to some of his shots capture the tale. When he nailed Jadeja over the cover-boundary, Kohli flashed that sarcastic smile of his, as if saying, “he’s living a charmed life.” The next over when he laced a back-foot drive off Shami, Kohli wore a bemused look, as if wondering how a No. 8 can unfurl a stroke of such correctness, that too on a strip with variable bounce and the ball holding up a bit. Later, when he caressed an on-drive, Kohli had his index finger on his lip, in as much disbelief as admiration. There was no more validation of Cummins’ batting gifts than this, an angular version of his own patented on-drive.

The most striking feature of his batting was minimalism — there’s hardly any quirky shuffle or frills. He takes long strides — that’s how he smothered the spin of Jadeja — doesn’t jab at the ball with hard hands like Aaron Finch, and curbs flashiness. So much so that he looks like a top-order batsman in the guise of a No. 8. Maybe, it’s the confidence gained from a terrific bowling effort, the belief that he couldn’t fail on his day. If man-of-the-match awards were distributed on a daily basis in Tests, he would’ve worn the medal comfortably.

Subsequently, the excitement of an impending milestone made Kohli look weary, manifesting in slouching shoulders, tired voices and crumpling faces. Soon crept in frustration. Jadeja was re-drafted — and he bowled the most uninspiring spell of his day, persisting with a line outside Lyon’s leg-stump, which can at best be called poor cricket. For the first time in the Test, India looked flat, short of ideas and dispirited.

Not that they feared Cummins and Lyon orchestrating a heist, which seemed unlikely, but they disliked the wait and perhaps the thought of coming back on the fifth day for just two wickets. All this despite taking the new ball, recalling the man-for-all-situations Jasprit Bumrah, frequently changing the field and resetting traps, and sprinting between overs so that they could sneak in a few more.

By then, Cummins stopped shielding Lyon too. Initially, he would sneak a single off the last or the penultimate delivery, but now Lyon too was looking unflustered, getting forward, comfortably reading Bumrah’s cryptic varieties and not letting any loose ball go unpunished. While Lyon is less technically accomplished than Cummins, what he lacks in skills, he shows in heart. Like most No. 10s, he leaves space between body and bat, but watches the ball so closely that he makes the required adjustments to protect his wicket. Like a senior top-order batsman, Cummins frequently chimed in with advice and encouragement.

In a way they exemplified the art of surviving on a difficult wicket, putting a heavy price on the wicket, demonstrating guts, exuding the belief that they can defy, if not deny, the eventuality. Just what their top order couldn’t muster.

But for all their effort, they returned grim-faced to the pavilion unable to prevent the symbolic gloom descending on their team. Even the applause might have fallen on deaf ears, but when the pain of the defeat subsides, they can reflect on their 64-minute resistance with a lot of pride.



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