Under siege, R Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari deliver a draw for ages

Monday at the Sydney Cricket Ground was all about validation. For those who feel waiting five days for a Test to produce a result and then settling for a draw is not worth it; or those who feel five days are too many in the first place.

Professional sport increasingly acknowledges only the spectacular that ends in a great win or numbing loss. How many talk about Zimbabwe forcing a draw against England with scores tied in the Bulawayo Test of 1996, for instance?

Ravichandran Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari produced pure grit for 42.4 overs, smothering everything the formidable Australian bowlers threw at them to ensure one of Test cricket’s memorable draws.

Former skipper and BCCI president Sourav Ganguly tweeted about Ashwin’s value in the Test team. Another validation for a player who is under pressure to keep his place in the squad every time he does not produce a great wicket-taking spell.

Vihari’s plight, coming into Day 5, was worse. Poor scores in the first two Tests, run out in the first innings, a vital dropped catch in Australia’s second innings and a hamstring injury soon after coming in to bat meant redemption was unlikely.

An IT engineer by qualification, Ashwin combines calculation and skill in bowling. Having been an opening batsman in his early days means technique and temperament in batting are not alien to him either. His handling of spin counterpart Nathan Lyon on a fifth-day SCG pitch would have made any top batsman proud, especially after the team had clearly decided that a draw was the best outcome because of Vihari’s injury.

The duo tackled 259 balls, Ashwin facing 128 balls (39no) and Vihari 161 balls (23 no) to leave Australia feeling like they had lost the game.

Ashwin didn’t offer a single chance against Lyon despite being ringed by close catchers and braved hits to the body. His wife Prithi Ashwin, who kept tweeting as he took India closer to an improbable draw, revealed that he was also playing in pain.

“The man went to bed last night with a terrible back tweak and in unbelievable pain. He could not stand up straight when he woke up this morning. Could not bend down to tie his shoe laces. I am amazed at what @ashwinravi99 pulled off today,” she tweeted.

Ashwin kept up Vihari’s morale with tips in Tamil. Vihari’s mother tongue is Telugu, but he plays for Nelson CC in Chennai’s first division league.

There was already chat that Vihari could be playing his last Test for a while—he struggles for a spot when India play at home. His fighting qualities, reputation as a team man and how he tackled Lyon in the MCG victory, kept him in the eleven. On the 2018-19 series, he was pushed to open with newcomer Mayank Agarwal. He made eight runs at MCG but consumed 66 balls to see off the new ball and allow Cheteshwar Pujara to hit a century, setting up victory. On Monday, with his hamstring making even jogging painful, he dug in to get the job done.

The last time India batted longer than 131 overs was over 40 years ago. In 1979, they lasted 150.5 overs to save the Oval Test, finishing nine runs short but with only two wickets in hand. That year, they also batted 131 overs to save the Delhi Test against Pakistan.

One of India’s thrilling fourth-innings heroics this century involved MS Dhoni and came at Lord’s. On the 2007 tour, MS Dhoni’s 76 not out at No.7 spanned almost three-and-half hours; he negotiated five overs with last man S Sreesanth to ensure a draw.

India made that draw, forced over 96 fourth-innings overs, count by winning the next Test at Trent Bridge and sealing their last series win in England.

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