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Bruised and abused, Indians make their own luck at the SCG

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WATCH: Rishabh Pant counter-attacks with 97 (1:56)

Rishabh Pant took the attack to Australia on the last day of the 3rd Test, going after Nathan Lyon in particular (1:56)

Ishant Sharma (whole series). Mohammed Shami (three Tests). Virat Kohli (three Tests). Umesh Yadav (two Tests). Ravindra Jadeja (most likely, one-and-a-half Tests). Hanuma Vihari (most likely, one Test). Rishabh Pant (at least half a Test). Rohit Sharma (two Tests). KL Rahul (not close to the playing XI but out of the series). R Ashwin has tweaked his back too. Cheteshwar Pujara is playing with a hand injury sustained in the nets. This is the known list of injuries suffered by the Indian team on the tour to Australia.

Everybody is sick of the bio-bubbles and Covid-19 restrictions. They have been away from home for close to five months. A man has missed his father's funeral, another the birth of his child. A third made it to the birth of his child only because he got injured. They are asking you not to leave your floor in your hotel. You perhaps know the bigger picture. You perhaps know you are the fortunate ones to still have a lucrative job. Yet it can get to you after this long.

The only thing left to do then is to just go out and play the cricket, the only place where you can be free. There, too, is a random racist bloke in the stands calling you names.

***

Between them, Rishabh Pant and Pujara divide more opinion than opinion exists.

Pant is a young punk. Plays his shots. His India batting coach wants him to walk the rope between "carefree" and "careless", suggesting he thinks he can be careless. They all talk about the shots he plays to get out all the time. Wherever he goes. Whichever format he plays. He has been out of the team for the whole year almost. He dropped two catches on day one. Still keeps chirping.

Pant's back foot slips away when he plays full balls. Experts say it will get him in trouble with short balls and straight balls. In the first innings one got him in the elbow. He was not wearing an arm guard. He couldn't get feeling in his arm. Couldn't hold the bat properly. Got compression tape on. Dropped the painkiller pill as he tried to pop it. Cue Twitter jokes on drops. Got up again, batted for ten balls more. Went for scans. There was no fracture.

The other is a senior pro. Phlegmatic. Everyone other than him seems to know how he should bat. Everyone believes they are right and he is wrong. At any given point of time in his career, he has not been scoring runs since, well, the last time he scored runs. And even those runs are not scored at the right tempo. He is credited for the dismissals of three of his fellow batsmen in an innings he faces a third of the bowling and top scores.

The two come together in the second over of the morning session. The Indian team management has decided to split Pujara and Vihari, who can both get stuck. There is a whole day to bat. There are 305 runs to get. You can't start to think of anything as target. The only thing left to do is bat and give it your best shot.

And they just bat. All the noise is kept out. At the wicket, it doesn't matter what Ricky Ponting and Allan Border - and Twitter, and that racist bloke in the front row - think. Pujara blocks. Pant hits out after getting set. These are two expert Test batsmen telling the world they know what works for them and that they will bat the way they believe is the best. Neither is thinking of a win or a draw.

Pujara brings up his fifty in 170 balls, four fewer than in the first innings, which was his slowest fifty in Tests. Pant races away from 5 off 34 to 50 off 64. This is how they play. This is how they should play. Their approach will be determined by what they feel is the best for themselves and the team at that time.

It is not like Pant has decided he is going for the win, and that that is the only brave and courageous thing to do. He has been dropped twice, on both occasions playing a defensive shot. He knows playing attacking cricket is his best bet. He has hit a six with the field up. Then with the field back. Then gone between the deep fielders. He knows any of these can get him out caught thus giving way to the noise about the shot-selection, but he has the conviction to keep doing what is best for him.

By the lunch break, Pant has attacked ten balls and defended 27. He has been in control of nine of the attacking responses, scoring 51 runs off those ten balls. He is not in control of three of the 27 defensive responses, two of them being edges dropped by Tim Paine. Not all pitches will allow this kind of cricket to come off, but in knowing which ones will, will be the key to the longevity of Pant's career.

***

Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon and Mitchell Starc are the best attack in the world. They are strong, fit, skilful, accurate and experienced. They possibly lack a Neil Wagner-like enforcer on dying pitches, but Australian pitches don't usually die down in the way this one has. The four keep pounding down this pitch tirelessly they best know how to.

The fast bowlers try shifting their line of attack. Over the wicket, around the wicket, straight at the wicket to outside off, short balls and reverse swing, but the pitch is just too slow to draw any response that can beat good batsmen intent on defence. Or someone as good at attack as Pant.

Lyon keeps creating chances, changing his line of attack if not the pace or trajectory as much as someone like Ashwin does. He gets Ajinkya Rahane early and also draws two edges from Pant, but is hit out of the attack by a left-hand batsman on a fifth-day pitch. Between them, by lunch on final day, Australia's bowlers have drawn 73 false responses but have taken just three wickets for it. In this series, bowlers have been getting a wicket for every nine false shots.

***

On the final day, usually the onus is on the spinner. If they don't deliver a win, they are not allowed to forget that day. Lyon knows it. India's spinner knows it. They don't ask Ashwin what happened at Wanderers in 2013-14. He just has to live with it for the rest of his life.

Here, though, Ashwin is not sitting down. He watches the whole Pant-Pujara stand while standing up in the viewing balcony of the SCG pavilion. This is no superstition. Ashwin has tweaked his back. His wife, Prithi, says he couldn't bend to tie his laces in the morning. His batting has anyway taken a hit in recent years. Once a potential allrounder, the last time Ashwin faced 50 balls in a Test innings was in Adelaide on the last trip in 2018-19. The last time he scored 50 runs was in 2017.

You have heard of VVS Laxman batting with a listing back in Kolkata in 2000-01. Of Mohinder Amarnath coming out in a blood-stained shirt, able to see his blood on the pitch, and then carry on batting against fearsome fast bowling. Of Shivlal Yadav batting with a broken toe. Of Anil Kumble bowling with a broken jaw. Now imagine acts of such bravery put together in the same Test. That is SCG.

No amount of courage, though, can trump conditions and luck. They were no less brave in Adelaide when they were bowled out for 36. The pitch was quick, the edges were carrying and they lost the whole side in 32 false responses. Here, as Ashwin watches on, false responses are either not going to hand, or when they go, they are dropped. By the time Pant finally holes out trying to maximise the old ball, India have lost just four wickets in 79 false responses. Put together, 36 all out and this 250 for 4 has featured 14 dismissals in 111 false responses, which is the going rate in the series.

***

This is day five. Two of the best sides in Test cricket are at each other. One of them is fighting a freakish run of injuries, cabin fever off the field and a great attack on it. The great attack is up against a dying pitch and wretched luck.

In their way is a batsman who made them bowl what he himself called the ball of the series in the first innings. If you wonder why Pujara keeps getting these unplayable deliveries, it is because he doesn't get out to lesser balls. He doesn't get the unplayable ones; he forces attacks to bowl unplayable ones. In between, he sometimes doesn't take toll of the less threatening ones, but here it doesn't matter. Especially once Pant has got out with 157 still to get. The draw is an option. The dots are building pressure on Australia, not on India. A draw is as good as a win for India.

If he is going to force you to bowl unplayable ones, then unplayable ones it shall be. Hazlewood runs in, bowls an inswinger just short of the driving length, Pujara covers for it as he has been doing for 380 deliveries in this Test. But this one pitches and leaves him to take the off stump. This is Test cricket of the highest quality rising above the virus, rising above the hate, rising above the conditions.

***

Then Australia catch a break. Vihari, India's last standing batsman, injures his hamstring while taking a single. Vihari is arguably playing for his career in a side that is full of options now for just five or six batting positions. He can't run now. Ashwin can't move too much. Jadeja is padded up but he can't even peel a banana with his broken hand. The next three are mugs with the bat. India can't think of winning now. Not that they did it earlier, but Australia feared it. Now they can focus on just attack.

Ashwin is full of respect for Cummins. He says Cummins can take it a notch higher when he sees a sniff. This is a sniff. There is a new ball in hand. Cummins goes short ball after short ball. Ribs, glove, shoulder, all peppered. Ashwin keeps getting back up and keeps getting inside the line of the short ones. The leaves down the leg side are classic smell-your-armpit ones.

Instinctively Ashwin wants to get off strike and sets off for a run, but realises Vihari can't run. Both of these batsmen were run out in the first innings. Ashwin was ridiculed for ball-watching, but he says he never received a call from his partner so he had to turn around and look where the ball was. Imagine being run out a second time as Vihari nearly is, responding to an instinctive call. But runs don't matter. Time does.

Ashwin spends the tea break on his feet because if he sits, he might do his back in for good. Vihari has most likely torn his hamstring. You can't hit out of this situation. You can't make the clock go faster. One ball after the other, they bat on.

***

"At least my team-mates like me, d**head... Even your team-mates think you are a goose."

That's Paine to Ashwin during a conversation caught on the stump mic. On day four, Paine was using the same stump mics to send a message across to the bullies of Australian cricket, Shane Warne and Andrew Symonds, for picking on Marnus Labuschagne, the South African who moved to Australia and is their second-best Test batsman now. Today the mics are catching this puerile conversation that he is using to try to unsettle a resolute batsman when the pitch is doing nothing for his bowlers.

Paine tells Ashwin he can't wait to see him in the fourth Test at the Gabba, which is supposed to be quicker. Ashwin tells him he can't wait to see Paine in India, which might end up being his last series. Can Paine be sure he will even make it to India?

Two Tests ago, Paine came out and turned a hopeless situation into a fighting one, benefitting from a dropped catch himself, and ended up being Man-of-the-Match for the first time in his career. His leadership, as was visible in him standing up for Labuschagne, is exemplary. But days of specialist captains are gone. Among Australia wicketkeepers who have scored at least 1000 runs, only two - Adam Gilchrist and Brad Haddin - have a better average than Paine's 32.37, but since Paine became captain in the aftermath of the ball-tampering scandal, only two wicketkeepers have averaged worse than his 27.73 and still survived ten Tests in their side.

If you are going to keep your place in the side without your batting, you better be great at catching and leading. Paine has presided over Australia's only series loss to an Asian side at home. Since May 2018, he has a decent catching efficiency of 91.3% against pace and 86.4% against spin. As a perspective, Pant's catching efficiency off spin is 55%. So far this series though, Paine has already dropped three: Gill in Melbourne - he went to hurt Australia - and Pant twice in Sydney.

Now watching his bowlers pound the lifeless pitch ball after ball, Paine is trying everything. If India draw this - as looks likely now with Ashwin and Vihari blunting every blow from Australia - Paine can still end up losing back-to-back series to India come Brisbane. And then Starc produces one final edge, which is carrying to first slip, but you can never be sure on such a dying pitch. So Paine does the right thing and dives for it, only to spill it again.

Paine has got to know dropped catches are a part of the game. Had he not been dropped in Adelaide, Australia might well have been 0-2 down. In total, he has dropped four but was doing the right thing each time. Not grabbing at the ball when Lyon bowled, not leaving it to the slip when Starc did. Will he be able to repeat this to himself when he is all alone in his bio-bubble, not able to leave his floor in the hotel?

***

Pujara keeps out 205 balls, Pant plays 118, Vihari hobbles along for 161 and Ashwin fights a painful back for 128. India lose only five wickets to 135 false responses, an innings they are owed after the 36 all out in just 32 false ones. The job done by the medical staff to put enough people on the park is immense. Between them, they have saved a Test when they don't know if they will have 11 standing men available for the next. If Vihari misses out in Brisbane because of injury and if India play just five batsmen at home, who knows when he will play next. Will Ashwin be able to come back and bowl in three days' time?

All that doesn't matter. What matters is that one good hamstring and a crooked back batted half a day out with only one good thumb and three Nos. 11 behind them; that two under-fire cricketers trusted their game to make these two dream they could save the Test; and that before those two, a man opening for the first time away from home, Rohit, showed them the pitch had no demons. In the end, the conditions might have won, but India put themselves in positions to benefit from any help from anywhere. That's what Test cricket, and life, is mostly about.