36. The earlier cricketing memory with this number was of Yuvraj; that of a high back lift, playing in a then-nascent format and treating a current day great like a backyard bowler. This was 2020 though, a year of surprises, and not good ones. India had again scored, nay, folded for 36. In a Test Match. Across 22 overs. As if there was any misery left to be piled on, Mohammad Shami wasn’t dismissed but injured out of the tournament. And of course, Virat Kohli, the one known to keep at a fight, who dared make a game of Adelaide 2014, who alone would’ve avenged this demolition with two double tons in the next match, was leaving too. The Indian team seemed to have spilled some milk, slipped on it, crossing the path of a horde of black cats and fallen facefirst on a mirror, shattering it. Nothing else could explain the monumental run of bad luck.
Common sense said that this was an aberration and India were simply unlucky; you don’t usually end up edging every ball and neither does every edge carry. This was just a bad day in office statistically and India would lose the next three matches with a little more fight. But it would impact the batsmen, hurt their confidence. With Virat gone, no chance of a comeback. It’s going to be at least 3–0 from here on. Since the result of the series was now a foregone conclusion, we turned to more “intellectual” questions — team balance, Shaw’s place, batting depth; certain that the team management is also doing the same and arriving at similar answers.
Come the team sheet for the Second Test and jokes about Shastri’s tipple began flowing. Jadeja and Pant were to make up for Virat’s absence with the bat, while compromising heavily on keeping, especially with two spinners in the team. Jadeja can keep tight lines, stretch the game. We may earn a draw now, I rationalised. Not to be. Ashwin came in to bowl as first change, which wasn’t entirely novel, but marked a turning point in the series from where every piece of conventional knowledge was turned on its head, every expected course of action challenged and the entire series took on the form of a pulp fiction, replete with outrageous turns, cheap thrills and a generous smattering of spilled blood and broken bodies.
Smith went early and Australia quickly capitulated. India had a sniff. But the ghosts of the Test past hung around. I clapped a little when India crossed the dreaded milestone at 1/10th the cost. They can’t outbat Australia though. Surely a collapse is around the corner? It wasn’t. Partly because Australia decided to return the favour from the first Test and matched the number of dropped catches. Ajinkya rode the turn of fortune and built a comfortable lead. The black cats weren’t far though. It was now Umesh’s turn to tumble. A bowler short and against a Smith who hasn’t scored any runs so far. Surely the game is gone now? Not if Boom had a say. A masterpiece was produced, felling Smith in a never before fashion. Consequently, the now familiar collapse followed and the game was sealed.
1–1 Now. I’d have bet my house (if I had one) against this result after 36. The team was thankfully, not made up of me. It had more optimistic, determined, harder men. But now we are in Sydney. They are sick of the quarantine, are three bowlers short, lost the toss AND Smith has finally found his hands, having been tied down by Ashwin so far. I am glad that we won one but surely, we can’t hold out anymore? I was finally proven right, what with the team folding for 244, running between wickets as if it was a game of Dare. To worsen matters, Jadeja and Pant were seriously injured by the end of the innings. Mores spilled milk. Once again, we began the second innings with a bowler short. The newly found hands were here to stay as Australia shut out all hope. Surely, the fight was over. We could hold our heads high for competing so far. Win was out of the question and we needed a miracle even for a draw. Wrong again. As the team stared down the barrel, out came Pant, promoted up the order.
A batsman with a zeal to punish bad balls matching Batman, and with a dedication to chaos like the Joker. He split the Australian attack from the middle while Pujara kept blunting it from the other end. What a beautifully mad phase it was where any over could go for 0 or 20, regardless of anything except the batsman on strike. In that moment, if one closed their eyes and meditated, one could see the two mortals merging together mid pitch and engendering the perfect batsman; one who had Pujara’s patience and Pant’s strokeplay. For that brief period, I experienced Nirvana. Maybe, just maybe, could they? No, impossible. But, they might, right? Wrong again. As soon as we began entertaining non sensical ideas of an unlikely chase, the hypnotic spell broke and the grim realities along with a bunch of black cats, returned in full vigour. An hour of mayhem saw the two fall the same way they had survived; attacking and defending respectively. Perhaps to punish us for hoping, fate compounded the misery. Vihari injured his hamstring running the most innocuous of singles and had Ashwin for company who already had a sore back. The ones after them consisted of broken fingers and three number 11s. 40 overs to go. The team’s fortunes and the team itself were just waiting to fall apart. “Brave game boys. You can take heart from the fight, even if we lost”, I thought. Wrong, yet again. Ashwin and Vihari hung around like the shameless, desparate tenants of an apartment who have overstayed there welcome where, short of physically dragging them away, the landlord has tried everything from baiting and abusing them to even physical intimidation. But they wouldn’t budge because they have nowhere else to go. And neither did I because I had woken up at 5 AM everyday and I’d rather endure the agony of this brave loss itself than listen to the wife’s jibes about it. A rare right call, as it turned out. OUR stubbornness paid off the only jibe I heard was, “Can’t wait for you to get to the Gabba Ash”. Foot. Mouth. It’s done, I knew. They had given up. This was the parting shot of a battalion in retreat, borne out of frustration. That night, my daughter slept to a cricketing fairy tale.