At 272-5, with Pant and Pujara (the top-scorers till then) back in the pavilion, R. Ashwin walked out to join Hanuma Vihari at the crease. Chasing the third highest total made in a successful run chase of 4th innings of a test match, with 43 overs to go, 5 wickets to go – Jadeja with a broken thumb being one of them and the rest certified tail-enders, Ashwin and Vihari represented the last men standing from the Indian defense. I say defense because attack was not an option anymore. If they had decided to go for 407, we would have 99 times out of 100 lost the match. This is where test cricket stands out from any other format of cricket and probably the only form of sport where you could neither win nor lose and yet your chest swells with pride at the end of it. And by now you would know, unless you are living under a rock, that these two batsmen played out the rest of the match without losing their wicket. Thus, saving India from a loss and also having a shot at winning the series.
To understand the magnitude of this achievement, take a look at this:
- 131 is the 5th most overs batted out by India in 4th innings in draws. The last time something like this happened was in 1979. And out of the 4 times it happened in the past, 3 were in India.
- 131 overs is the most number of overs India have batted in the fourth innings of a Test since 1980.
Let me start by saying this: Even if Hanuma Vihari’s Test career ends with this test match, he will be remembered forever for this knock of 23(161)* with a torn hamstring. This is the ultimate nirvana of a test player of any country. Between Ashwin and him, they batted out an astonishing 259 deliveries which is 3 overs more than an entire T20 match considering both sides having bowled.
Let’s look at what a cricket player has to do to play test match cricket.
School and U-x matches: They start taking cricket coaching from an early age which means they go to a coaching academy either or both before and after their school. They play for their school and academy cricket teams. Then, they make it to U-12, U-13, and U-15 tournaments playing for their respective schools. These are full-day matches – 40 overs a side if you are playing in a state association registered tournament. At a very young age, the players are tuned to playing for long.
Divisional cricket: Then you enter the divisional cricket and the college level cricket matches. Except for the University level matches, the inter-collegiate tournaments are not usually critical in someone’s journey. The divisional cricket is. One has to play well at the first and second division club matches to be taken note of by the Ranji team selectors. Usually, these first division matches are 3-day 2-innings matches in the test format. Players almost turn pro (most are students at this age) at this stage when they know they can make it big. They end up playing two matches a week playing for different clubs just to ensure their skill is in play all the time. Though loyalty is to one main club, the other club has them over on invitation to ensure they are able to play and play well. And the same club has teams across levels. So if the club sees potential in the player, they slowly help them graduate across levels.
Rahul Dravid, for instance, after his retirement in 2012, turned up to play for his club Bangalore United Cricket Club for a KSCA Group I Division II league match against Sri Jayachamarajendra Cricket Club and scored a 72-ball 108 (15×4, 3×6) to help them from getting further relegated. He joined the club as a 13-year old and owes a lot to Mr. Tarapore who asked him to join the club.
Ranji Trophy (also called List A): Once a player has played well in divisional cricket over a repeated consistent basis and has traversed all the politics of club-level cricket, he (not sure if the women play across these levels – I just don’t know enough about that) gets picked by the state cricket association for the probables for Ranji Trophy. There is a probables list announced consisting of 30 players mostly identified from the top performers of the divisional level cricket to play the upcoming season of Ranji. They undergo a camp in the main cricket ground of their state and from there slowly they begin getting into their state cricket teams. If there are 1000 players who have played divisional level cricket, 1 or 2 out of them get to enter the State team each year. So, the maximum dropouts happen at this level. These Ranji Trophy matches are 4-day matches and happen across 2 or 3 months. Most Ranji Trophy players are playing this full-time. They earn a daily allowance of INR 1,000 and a match fees that amounts to upto INR 35,000 per day – so if they play one match they end up making close to INR 1.45L per match. A full season means around 9 matches which translates to roughly INR 13L which is good enough to devote their time fully to the game.
Then you are picked for the Duleep Trophy to represent the zonal cricket team. For example, if you are playing for Karnataka then you represent South Zone. There are zonal teams – North, East, West, South and Central.
Yuvraj Singh played for his North Zone team post returning from his cancer treatment and smashed a double century to be recalled into the Indian cricket team.
After all of this, there is a trophy called the Deodhar Trophy which happens between India A, B, and C, cricket teams. These are teams formed by picking the best players from the previous levels and the current India team players all distributed to usually form evenly strong teams. This trophy assesses the level of the list A players by pitting them against players who have played International level cricket. These are ODI format matches (50-overs a side, day-and-night sometimes).
INDIA Team – A cricket player makes it to the Indian team after making it across all these levels, unless he is a prodigy like Tendulkar!
The T20 leagues effect
The one that has the biggest impact of all the mushrooming T20 leagues – the Indian Premier League (IPL) has become a sort of a catalyst to fast-track players into the Indian cricket team. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. But there is a longer discussion necessary on what the IPL is doing to the test match playing skills of the players of today.
And it is in this context, that Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin’s knocks establish that while the IPL and other shorter formats may be around, the core cricketing skills of a cricket player continue to be intact, atleast in some pockets. Those pockets seem to include players like Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteswar Pujara and few others. We need to continue to nurture and incentivize them. Else these much valued skills will wane into the oblivion and all we will end up watching for a cricket match is bowlers getting belted all around for sixes and fours with fielders performing gymnastics at the boundary ropes. While that is a different set of skills, we are talking about the fundamental skills that test cricket builds.
One of the positives of the IPL is that it helps players like T. Natarajan make the cut. While there are many others who have missed out on the IPL and are waiting on the sidelines despite a good Ranji record. The IPL itself might not have spotted T. Natarajan, if not for the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL). So, the T20 leagues are finally doing what they are meant for – which is to bring talent to the fore and help them express themselves at the International level.
Questions and Answers
If you read through the levels and hoops that a cricket player has to go through then you understand that fundamentally the player has to have a long-term mindset. The intention must be to stay the course by getting through teams and tournaments and levels and not just staying on top of their game but to actually become the best of the games that are put forward by other players also. So, not just is one competing with themselves constantly but is in a very intense competition with other players getting into the fray almost everyday.
What does it mean to compete with oneself as a batsman in this journey of becoming an Indian cricketer? If you pick up the traditional cricket coaching manual, then the elbow of your top hand has to be always straight and the eyes have to be above the ball. The front leg must be as close to the pitch of the delivery and the gap between the bat and the pad must be less than the width of the cricket ball. And there are many more such minute things that make a significant impact on the batsman becoming a “Test” player. The last genuine test player we had was probably Rahul Dravid. Following in his footsteps, the only player in that mould seems to be Cheteshwar Pujara. Else, such players are largely lost today to the insane boundary hitting lust of the T20 leagues.
The T20 leagues ask the following set of questions to a batsman:
- Can you hold onto a career average of 30+ with a SR of 120+? When we add your Average and SR, it has to be 150+ with a minimum of 500 T20 runs under your belt.
- Can you make the runs when the equation is 30 balls – 60 runs? Do you have the ability to close a match when the last 6 balls require 20+ runs?
- How far can you hit a six? There is a contest for that – can you win that?
If you noticed right through their career’s journey, none of them was prepared to answer these questions. It’s their incredible ability to adapt and train to this that they are able to perform so brilliantly.
Test cricket on the other hand asks the following questions:
- Can you play out the new ball?
- Can you leave the balls that are in the corridor of uncertainty? Do you know where your off-stump is?
- Can you build a partnership and play out a session?
- Can you block or get out of the way of a barrage of bouncers from an express fast bowler at the top of his game and spell?
- Can you put a value on your wicket that makes bowlers of the opposition plan their bowling attack around you?
- Can you curb your natural instincts to hit a cover drive of an over-pitched delivery outside off-stump because you have gotten out the last two matches edging these deliveries to first slip?
- Can you field for two days under the hot sun in a leather hunt and then come back to play out the last few overs after being terribly exhausted from all the standing and running around?
- Can you stay calm out in the middle when the opposition is sledging you and your family left, right and center for over a session (2.5hrs to 3 hrs)?
- And yet, after all this, are you able to maintain an average of 50+ per innings across your career?
And there are many more questions like these which test cricket asks of the batsmen. The very questions they have trained for all their lives. Not just the cricket training, the entire process of playing for the country is so draining that it builds the resilience to stand up when the odds are stacked against you. It asks questions which you cannot answer through belligerence or aggression. You can only answer through surviving and resisting. Through doing the right thing. You cannot go for that six off that over-pitched delivery because this is an old ball and a 5th day pitch of which you can never be sure.
And that’s exactly what Hanuma Vihari and R. Ashwin did in that 4th innings. They put their heads down. Showed their temperament. Survived the sledging from around the wicket. And put a value on their wicket. They answered every question the Australians asked by ensuring they stayed on. The next player to walk in was Ravindra Jadeja who had a broken thumb. Rest of them were all tailenders. If one of them had gotten out, then the match was virtually over and the series would only be available to be equaled not won anymore.
This is the exact stage for which all the players were built throughout their careers. This is the moment they play for. The opportunity they desire to win a match for India and if that’s not available then they would like to atleast save the match for the country. It’s the second best option available. And it’s only in this sport that this option is even available. After fighting through so many hurdles and obstacles you are just simply delighted to be playing for this country. Thus, when you are at a point where you think the match cannot be won anymore without a very real risk of losing it, you set out to save it. And it’s known to be one of the toughest pursuits in sport. You are not trying to win, you are trying to avoid losing. It is very easy to end up into the position that you are trying to avoid. Life mostly works that way.
And that’s exactly why this effort is remarkable. It hasn’t happened in over 4 decades in India. In a country that is fueled by the craze of T20 cricket, for cricket fans like me, this test match restored the belief that our country’s system is still producing test cricketers. To me this is the highest Calibre of cricket players.
And to the players themselves, I would imagine that this is the ultimate nirvana for which they have prepared through their entire careers – U-12, U-13, U-15, U-19, Ranji, Duleep, Deodhar, IPL and finally the Test scene. Winning a match happens when the bowlers take the 20 wickets or batsmen score the winning runs. Saving a match happens when your team needs you to dig your heels in and stay on that quickly degrading pitch drawing upon every instruction and input you have received from every coach and mentor all your life. The other team has tried every trick in their armoury to either get you out or upset you or even injure you! This is the ultimate nirvana because you are the last man standing!