At the end of arguably the most heroic rearguard act in the history of Indian cricket, Hanuma Vihari, one half of the famous Sydney jailbreak pair, could barely move. He was limping and hobbling through much of his 161-ball tour de force — how much he scored hardly mattered — after tearing his hamstring when stealing a single early in his innings. He plunged into the tired embrace of Ravichandran Ashwin, who had worn lusty blows on his chest, arm and ribs.
In the end, after their 256-ball exhibition of unshakeable defiance, they were exhausted, in both body and mind, and had not the energy to even shake hands, let alone scamper for souvenir stumps.
They dragged themselves back to the pavilion, together but immersed in their own separate worlds, in a pleasant reverie, seemingly unbeknownst to the leaps and high-fives around them. They smiled with robotic movements of their facial muscles, shook hands with automated movement of their muscles. Their mind seemed disconnected from what was happening in the middle —they must have felt a sense of disorientation one feels after a long train journey. As if they had not yet finished the journey, as if there were difficult overs to be repelled, more yorkers to be dug out, and more short balls to duck under. The sudden stillness of the moment would have unnerved them.
Ashwin was lost for words, but gathered himself and told a television interviewer: “It was a knock equal to scoring a hundred.” The most valued 39 runs of his career. Later the proud captain, Ajinkya Rahane, said he was convinced Vihari would treasure this knock more dearly than his only Test hundred till date.
It didn’t seem like this was to be a special day for Vihari when he clutched his thigh and grimaced in pain after taking a single. After the physio attended him, he tried to take a few steps but stuttered. He leant on his bat, as if it were a walking stick. His partner Cheteshwar Pujara looked empathetically at him. From the dressing room balcony, Ashwin looked on urgently, in case Vihari chose to surrender and retire hurt.
But he is made of sterner stuff than that. Beneath his unassuming manners and inexpressive gaze is a tough mind that would not give up. He firmly signalled towards the dressing room that he was disinclined to retire hurt. Rather die fighting than not fight at all. The tear impaired his movements, he had to reach out to defend on the front foot. The Australian pacers sensed the kill, peppering him with fuller deliveries outside the off-stump, interspersed with the short ball. Nathan Lyon would tease and torment him with fuller balls outside the off-stump.
Vihari looked troubled. He had endured so wretched a series that his future in the side teetered on the edge of the precipice. But what mattered was that he protected his wicket. He stabbed at balls, but didn’t edge. So many times, the wicked ball seemed blasting onto his pads, but his crooked bat would find a minute deflection. When technique undid him at times, tenacity retrieved him. But with each delivery that he edged and didn’t edge, he regained his confidence, just as Australia seemed to lose theirs. Despite the debilitating pain, Vihari began to press forth more assertively, he ensured that he will never even attempt dreaming of intervening in the paths of deliveries outside the off-stump. Soft hands helped, as did a cool head. He then wove a labyrinth of infallibility around him. He seldom came out of it, neither did he let anyone into it. He was in an almost trance-like state.
So was Ashwin, his comrade-in arms. His batting had seemingly tapered off in recent times, though he had seldom looked out of touch. On Sunday night, his wife Prithi tweeted, he had gone to bed with a terrible back pain. He could not stand up straight in the morning or bend to tie his shoelaces.
Trading languidness for solidity, Ashwin reeled out his bravest innings to date. When the full-ball ploy didn’t harvest immediate rewards, Pat Cummins decided to blow him with short balls. Just after tea, a short ball crashed onto his arm-guard, which the umpire deciphered had brushed his glove. Ashwin immediately reviewed, upon which the decision was overturned. That was a decisive moment in the match, as his exit would have exposed Ravindra Jadeja, padded up despite a broken arm, and the flimsy lower order.
Thus they were the final post before the fortress was breached. One guard was already injured, the other sustained a painful blow. Ashwin tried to weave away from the line of a Cummins short ball, but it followed him and cannoned onto his chest. Ashwin almost plunged onto the crease, before seeking medical assistance. But the next time Cummins went short, he got nicely behind the line and defended off the backfoot.
Josh Hazlewood, though, persisted. A short ball brushed his right shoulder, another thundered onto his chest, close to his sternum. But Ashwin didn’t budge. Hazlewood then stationed four catchers on the legside and made no effort to conceal his ploy to target Ashwin. The bowler was left cursing his luck when a leading edge fell in no man’s land. Another one jumped out of substitute fielder Sean Abbott’s grasp. Ashwin rode his luck, and made it count. Every blow on his body only steeled him further. Australia ratcheted up the pressure, increased the decibel of the on-field chatter, but Ashwin remained immovable. He, like Vihari, had sequestered into a self-woven web of discipline and doggedness.
Between overs, they barely talked or laughed. It was not until it came down to the last two overs that Vihari broke into half a smile. Ashwin, though, did all the pep talk, constantly urging Vihari: “Aadu Maama Aadu, innum path over tha!” (Keep on batting, there are just 10 more overs). An over later, Starc finally caught the edge of Vihari’s bat, only for it to be grassed by Tim Paine. Ashwin kept shouting: “Parava ilee, aadu Maama (It doesn’t matter, keep on playing). And they did, safely negotiating a late onslaught to script one of India’s most famous jailbreaks.