If you ever need two cricketers to bat for your life, you know whom to call.
There were three long hours left and over 40 overs to go when India’s finest defender Cheteshwar Pujara departed for a stoic 77. That’s when Ashwin, “who couldn’t bend down to tie his shoelaces in the morning” walked out to meet a hobbling Vihari, already racked by a torn hamstring. He could still bat, but not run anymore.
In the pavilion, another injured trooper Ravindra Jadeja had put on his pads, but needed team-mates to peel bananas for him due to a fractured thumb. The rest were rabbits. The Aussies were close to landing the knockout punch to a team resembling an injury ward.
But Vihari and Ashwin batted like soldiers making a last stand. Vihari, fighting for his place in the playing 11, passed the sternest test of his technique and character. Ashwin took blows all over his torso. If there was a Veer Chakra for batting, the two would have received the award.
Both gathered strength from each other, exchanging words of wisdom in Tamil. Together, they turned batting into comradeship. They didn’t play shots that make the highlights package; but their fortitude was the day’s highlight, despite Rishabh Pant’s crackerjack 97. They put on 62 undefeated runs — and sacrificed as many due to Vihari’s injury — facing 256 relentless deliveries.
Vihari scored the greatest 23 not out in India’s Test history. Ashwin may take a 15-wicket haul someday but this 39 will always have a special place in his autobiography.
Not since the Oval in 1979 had India batted so many overs to save an away Test. Post-2002, India had never even survived 100 overs in the fourth innings. On Monday, they batted for 131 overs for safety.
Old timers remember Anshuman Gaekwad’s unflinching 81 against a hostile Caribbean attack in Kingston, 1976. Kapil Dev bowled India to an improbable victory with a fractured toe in Melbourne, 1981. A broken jaw couldn’t stop Anil Kumble from bowling in Antigua, 2002. Monday’s “till death do us part” stand belongs to that select cherished group.
Even in this era of fleeting memories, this partnership will live, be retold. In time, it will morph into folklore: how one January day, Vihari and Ashwin came to the pitch as batters and left as warriors.
Perhaps, if Aussie captain Tim Paine had opened his mouth less and shut his gloves faster, it might have been a different story. Now the draw improves India’s chances of retaining the Border-Gavaskar trophy.
Australia, who indulged in blatant gamesmanship, needs a win to wrench it back. India has some bitter memories of Brisbane, where the fourth and last Test begins on Jan 15.
But captain Ajinkya Rahane’s Team India can justifiably say, “We are not interested in reading history, we only want to make it”.