There are cracks on the pitch, there are bruises on the body.
This is Gabba on Day 5. Australia have not lost here in 32 years. Suddenly, the best player of short balls on this tour - never forget the soft grip, the drop of hands, the ducking - has begun to cop some blows. Fingers, shoulders, forearms, thighs, helmet, he is being hit everywhere.
Suddenly, his bat is not going down as he leaves these deliveries, producing outside edges and keeping slips in action. This is Cheteshwar Pujara. Usually outside the off stump, a little bit of bounce and the hands go down, the knee bends, the eyes watch the ball go past the crease to the keeper's gloves. But this is not the same Pujara as he is struggling to cope with the barrage of bouncers being aimed at his body.
Cheteshwar Pujara appreciation tweet 😌
He will leave the Gabba battered and bruised and a winner...
56 off 211 balls and hours occupied frustrating the Aussie bowlers 👏 pic.twitter.com/7J8lYa4mWd
" Cricket on BT Sport (@btsportcricket) January 19, 2021
Mid-way into the lunch session, he is looking at his fingers on the right hand, with team physio sitting there concerned, you feel this is it: Another injury. Another player off.
The broadcaster cuts to the ad break and you think, what next? Is Pujara leaving? Is he staying? Cut back to live action, and you see him taking guard again, cool as ever, as if the last 5 minutes did not exist, did not matter. But the pain? What pain? The next ball is a bouncer again, left alone; the last one a seaming one, played with the similar approach: soft hands, contact right under watchful eyes, in absolute control.
You watch this and you get reminded of Ravindra Jadeja who may not have come out to bat in second innings of the third Test at the SCG yet visuals of him sitting with a broken thumb, waiting for his turn to bat, in a bid to draw the Test, stood for enormous courage. Those who have broken a nail catching a high catch even during school or college cricket, will have some idea of what courage is being talked about here. Batting with a broken thumb? Against Hazlewood, Starc and Cummins? What is this audacity? Jadeja's mere presence with pads on, sitting in the dressing room, must have been as upsetting for the Australians as a block from Pujara.
But he never got to bat. Because Ravichandran Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari, battling failings of their own bodies themselves, made sure there were no hiccups as India inched closer to the close of play on Day 5, eventually dragging the match to an exciting draw. However Ashwin and Vihari only had to cope up with full tea session and quarter of lunch session on last day, thanks to Rishabh Pant, who had recovered from pain in his left arm, to play a sensational innings on the same day earlier. He had been hit by a Cummins bouncer while pulling in the first innings.
India's Ravichandran Ashwin, right, and Hanuma Vihari walk from the field following play on the final day of the third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
At the Gabba, the bodies were failing again, but the mind was continuously passing strength, in abundance, to the quickly depleting body parts. Mental strength, we are talking about here, the last reserve for a bruised and battered body. And as one speaks about mental strength, one is instantly reminded of India's stand-in captain.
Ajinkya Rahane at MCG, had smashed a Test hundred, his 12th. This was not a flawless inning yet Rahane's best. He had not really showed this sort of character in any of his innings in last 2-3 years. The character came to the fore more in context of where the series was placed. When it mattered the most, he easily earned the instant respect a captain needs to own during a tough tour. He led the way with the knock from that difficult point on this tour.
India's Ajinkya Rahane acknowledges the applause as he walks back to the pavilion after scoring career;s 12th Test ton at MCG. AFP
Rahane said that team did not really speak much of what had happened at Adelaide.
It was important for the seniors to step up and let their bats and balls do the talking at MCG. Rahane did that with that hundred. It was a moral victory for India before the actual one, a team that had been booked for 36 in innings before. The knock told India camp that the fire was still there. That Virat had gone home, aggressive captaincy had not. Rahane's leadership was stamped all over in that knock. He was equally brilliant in the field with his decision making when India bowled.
Not to forget, India were without Mohammed Shami at MCG. In the second Test, they lost Umesh Yadav, another key component of India's pace bowling arsenal.
Despite the win, SCG remained a huge ocean to cross. Rohit came in, the confidence went high after the MCG win and seniors in Ashwin, Bumrah, Rahane were leading from the front but at the same time Indians continued to lose players throughout the third Test. Jadeja broke his thumb, Vihari did his hamstring, Ashwin bowled and batted with a sore back and Pant had bruises on his arm. Despite all adversities, India continued to find heroes, those with physical scars and new ones.
The physios kept running to the pitch, with the medical kits, spraying on ankles, finger, thighs, arms as India struggled hard to save the SCG Test. Pant, Vihari, Ashwin were the heroes of this draw that felt like a win. But the victory came on the base built by Pujara, who after playing just 74 balls in two innings at MCG, had made up his mind. He was not going to cut, pull anymore untill he had complete faith on the bounce of the wicket. He was going to do what he does best. Stay.
India's Cheteshwar Pujara avoids a bouncer during play on the final day of the fourth Test at the Gabba, Brisbane. AP Photo
He consumed 381 deliveries in the third Test, holding one end tightly as Cummins, and Hazlewood and Lyon applied themselves to get past the bat and pad, kiss the outside edge, hit the top of off. But Pujara kept bocking. However, Cummins kept finding new angles for him and Hazlewood kept playing the waiting game, bowling the length around off, Lyon remained focussed on turning and bouncing into him from outside off. Like always, he invited criticism from those who blamed him for playing too slow and eating into India's chances of a win, not realising that had he not played those 176 balls for his 50 out of 604 Aussies bowled in the first innings, the 244 India made could well had been a 150 all-out.
At SCG, India found a way to frustrate Australia and it became their biggest strength going forward. Pant at No 5 in second innings of the match was a genuine masterstroke, as India mixed the resilience of Pujara with the exuberance of Pant to keep themselves in the game. The same worked for them at Gabba when Pant came out to bat again after fall of third wicket. Pujara naysayers will still exist because his aggression is not out in the open, like Pant's pulls, Gill's slap through cover point, his is quietly sitting in form of tiredness in overworked legs of Hazlewood, Cummins and Starc.
Maybe the new India is too obsessed with the word aggression. So much that it has forgotten what relentlessness is. Renowned architect Charles Corea hated glass buildings because he believed in concept of air and space. Maybe also because all glass buildings look the same. Imagine all our cities beginning to look the same one day. Where's the beauty when one is looking for the same traits in everything, everyone.
Pujara, might be an old school batsman, but he feels like a breath of fresh air in the world obsessed with strike rates, and ramp shots. His blocks do not fetch a run, but they break the monotony of careless aggression as well.
Anyway, at Gabba, with series squared at 1-1, India had further lost the depth of their squad. Ashwin was gone, Vihari was already at the airport catching a flight, Jadeja could not play with only nine fit fingers and India's paceman Bumrah had abdominal strain.
Imagine an India XI without Kohli, Bumrah, Ashwin, Jadeja, Ishant, Shami, Umesh, Bhuvneshwar being told to compete with a full-strength Australia XI and told to beat them. Where? At Gabba. Australians don't lose there, Tim Paine had already warned Ashwin.
Despite a spirited performance in the last Test, India began a new Test on back foot. The headlines kept talking history to the visitors, they kept talking about quarantine, they kept talking about the cracks on the pitch. But look at India's audacity, again. Rahane fielded two debutants in the XI and one bowler who had bowled only 10 deliveries in his first Test. This was a forced selection. Which visiting team otherwise would field two players with no first-class experience at the Gabba? The audacity did not reflect in the selection, but in the intent of these three new men - Washington Sundar, Shardul Thakur and T Natarajan.
India's inexperienced pace attack, they said. This bowling attack, led by a 2-Test old Mohammed Siraj, picked all 20 wickets, Australia's experienced pace attack ended up picking only 17. Not to forget, how Thakur and Sundar batted in the first innings when the visitors were reduced to 186/6, scoring their maiden fifties and taking India's total closer to that of hosts, minimising the deficit.
India's paceman Mohammed Siraj (right) celebrates his five-for with teammate Mayank Agarwal at The Gabba in Brisbane. AFP
Throughout this tour, and it began after Adelaide, whenever India were pushed on back foot, they stormed back in style, delivered a counter punch just when they appeared down and out. These remarkable comebacks from India at every stage of the tour were the hallmark of this team. That it was a hallmark of a team without Kohli, makes it even more special and one for the ages.
Australians, in a way, did not know what hit them. They first thought India were dented enough to make a comeback from Adelaide but then Rahane happened. They thought, with over 400 to get and players injured, it was the end of India's fight at SCG, but Pant, Pujara, Vihari and Ashwin happened. There was of course the Gabba, the history. But Australia did not know that India's new generation of cricketers with a million or more followers on social media, obsessed with fitness and good looks, were far more interested in making history here than Instagram stories.
Late on Day 4, it was India's audacity again which had put insecurities in Australian dressing room as Paine roamed around thinking of a declaration with just one wicket in hand and time running out on the penultimate day. He thought about time and runs. India had the weapons to fight both. Pujara could bat time. Pant, Rohit, Gill could score at speed of gun. India's second innings threatened him even before it had begun.
On Day 5, with Rohit gone early, Paine and co sensed that was it. Time to roll over them. But Gill happened. Another show of audacity, just when they were expected to crumble, weaken.
Gill punch-raced to 91 in the second innings. He refused fears. He neither saw the cracks nor the World No 1 bowler aiming screamers at him. With lunch minutes away, he was flashing his blade, pulling, cutting, punching. He fell, Rahane came. Australia thought that was it. But Rahane stepped out to Lyon and smacked him over long. After he fell, came in the hero of the fourth Test, who never thought of a draw, even if he consumed deliveries and played with low strike rate, he always thought of the win. Of course, we are talking about Pant. Sundar, Thakur too. India kept showing audacity to Australia, who just could not take it more after one stage.
Pant shone with the bat in almost every innings. His 29 off 40 at MCG was a good start. At SCG he was beginning to come to his best. However, it was his last act at the Gabba, which revealed what he aimed for when he started off in cricket. With a drive through mid off, the ball was pacing towards the ropes, but Pant continued to run between the wickets. Throughout the tea session, these drives and punches hit hard had often failed to reach the ropes, courtesy the sudden slowness in the outfield. Pant ran because he was not waiting for the ball to reach the ropes. India still required 3 and it did not matter to him how these runs came. He took the game deep and finished it, punched the air with his fist, then casually walked to hug his teammates with a smile on his face. As if it was a cakewalk for him. Where have we seen this before? I think we know that.
At the end of the Test, Australia head coach Justin Langer said "never ever ever underestimate India." That is what Australians learnt. But there is something more Indians taught. That in life or sports, never ever ever overestimate your opponent either. Believe.