With the first Test of the 2023 Border-Gavaskar Trophy starting in Nagpur on Thursday, former India fielding coach R Sridhar recalled how the then head coach Ravi Shastri and support staff encouraged Ravichandran Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari when they were batting during the third Test of the 2020/21 series at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
On day five of the SCG Test, Ashwin and Vihari, despite nursing back and hamstring injuries respectively, shared an unbroken 62-run partnership for the sixth wicket, lasting 42.2 overs, to force an epic draw for India.
"Equally satisfying, if not more, was what happened on the final day of the Sydney Test in January 2021. We needed to bat out more than 45 overs when Ashwin joined Vihari in the middle at the fall of the fifth wicket.
Jadeja was injured and would only bat if desperately needed to do so, and only the pacers were left otherwise, so in effect, this pair was our best and perhaps last bet to salvage a draw."
"When we arrived at the Sydney Cricket Ground on the final morning, we were two down with 98 overs to negotiate (Rohit and Shubman were dismissed the previous evening).
Soon, as we entered the dressing room, one of the locals looking after our requirements bustled across and asked us if we wanted the lunch served at the ground itself, or if we'd rather they sent it across to our hotel.
His not-so-subtle message was that we wouldn't last till lunch! I laughed at that well-placed salvo, which was typical Australian, typical of how they come at you," wrote Sridhar in his book 'Coaching Beyond: My Days with the Indian Cricket Team'.
Before the staunch resistance by Ashwin and Vihari, Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant had lifted the Indian spirits with a crucial 148-run partnership off 264 balls. But tension gripped the Indian dressing room when the duo fell in quick succession.
"Anyway, we were still afloat at lunch, thanks to Pujara and Rishabh. After a grand partnership of 148 that threatened to turn the match on its head, they both got out within 25 runs of each other, leaving Vihari and Ashwin holding the baby.
I could sense the tension and nervousness in the very small dressing room at the Sydney Cricket Ground. If we lost the game, we could kiss our chances of making the WTC final goodbye.
We could forget about thinking of another series win in Australia." "But, sitting beside each other, the members of the support staff told one another that we would not let anyone know how we were feeling.
'Let's keep encouraging these two guys every ball, no matter what happens,' was our mantra. Ravi bought into the idea, and believe me, for the duration of that partnership-nearly-260 deliveries-he would scream his lungs out after every ball, screaming 'shabash' loudly enough each time for all 15 gentlemen in the middle to hear clearly.
If the situation weren't so dire, it would have been hilarious," further wrote Sridhar.In that match, Vihari finished unbeaten on 23 off 161 balls while Ashwin was unconquered on 39 off 128 deliveries.
Sridhar went on to describe how Shastri had sent a message to the duo through substitute Shardul Thakur. "Vihari and Ashwin came in at tea, and while we converged to congratulate and encourage them, a tactical call was also made.
Vihari had pulled his hamstring and was not able to play Lyon convincingly because his movements were restricted. He couldn't put in the good, long stride. Ashwin, meanwhile, was being subjected to a bouncer barrage from the quicks.
So, it was decided that Ashwin, at home against Lyon, would take on the off-spinner and Vihari would negotiate the three-pronged pace attack." "After having stuck to their respective ends of the bargain, for some strange reason, they took a single, which exposed Vihari to Lyon and Ashwin to the fast men.
A couple of singles later, the situation was unaltered and Ravi was starting to lose his shirt." "He summoned substitute Shardul Thakur and told him, 'Listen to me very carefully and repeat this to them: 'No matter what happens, Vihari will handle the fast bowlers, Ashwin will play Lyon.
No singles, no change of ends, period'. Got it?'" "Shardul smiled coyly and said, 'Yes, sir', and charged to the middle with a bottle of water for Ashwin. After exchanging a few words with the two batters, he ran back in.
'Did you pass on my message?' Ravi growled. 'Yes, sir, of course', Shardul replied." Sridhar then revealed that Shardul had lied to Shastri about his message to the on-field batters.
"It was only much, much later, after we had pulled the fat out of the fire and escaped with one of the greatest draws, that the real story came out. It seems when Shardul went in, Ashwin asked him what was being said in the dressing room.
Shardul replied, 'They are saying many things, but you guys don't worry. You are batting well, just continue doing the same things'." "He didn't pass on Ravi's message; instead, he told the batters exactly what they wanted to hear at that time.
Perhaps he sized up that passing on the instructions, however, steeped in logic they might be, could disrupt the flow of the batters and the zone they were in, so he passed on a message he thought was the best under the circumstances."
"Hats off to him! In a direct way, that is linked to the kind of empowerment we gave the players, and which they learnt to use judiciously." "Coaching Beyond: My Days with the Indian Cricket Team' by R. Sridhar with R. Kaushik is published by Rupa Publications India.