CHENNAI: Pat Cummins has the ball in his hand. It's the start of the 68th over, his 18th of the innings. At the striker's end is Shardul Thakur, facing his 15th ball in Test cricket. As far as scene-setters go, this is a rookie facing a future Hall of Famer.
It's pitched short and Thakur, who has honed his skills in India's dust balls, takes him on. With one swift motion, he rocks back and hooks Cummins. It's the perfect connection and the ball sails over the boundary for six. A challenge has been accepted.
At the other end, Washington Sundar, 21-ball into his Test career, applauds. Their nascent partnership is worth seven runs from four balls, they trail Australia by 176 more runs. And this is at 'The Gabba', the place where most overseas rookies die a silent death.
Nathan Lyon has the ball in his hand. It's the beginning of over No 104. It's his 100th Test, three short of 400 wickets. At the striker's end is Washington, 122 balls into his Test career. He plays out five dot balls. The sixth will be in montages decades from now. Lyon drifts one down the leg side and Sundar senses an opportunity. His back leg is down, before the bat forms a perfect arc to connect with the ball. It's a slog sweep but with a straight bat. It goes over wide long-on. It's a no-look six, the type you will replay many times over. That was Sundar's first scoring shot since he lost Thakur, after a 123-run partnership that left the Australian bowlers down mentally. Between those two shots, the Indian rearguard once again showed enough fight and ability.
The hosts lead by 54 — 21 without loss after six overs — but Sundar and Thakur were the unlikely batting stars, a two-man fighting unit who switched the lights on by playing lights out cricket. In a series full of documentary-worthy Indian stories — Ajinkya Rahane's fighting 100 in Melbourne, R Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari's stubborn resistance in Sydney, a conveyor belt of greenhorns replacing injured comrades — this partnership was yet another masterpiece, a Rembrandt to go with the Van Goghs and the Caravaggios that came before.
It's to their credit that their stand wasn't a product of chancy batsmenship but calculated risk-taking. They played out overs when caution was required and put the bad balls away. It would be fair to say if this was a Covid-free world, Thakur and Sundar would have been playing for the respective domestic sides now. Yet, here they were, driving a generational bowling line-up, both with the old and the new ball, up the wall. The only thing less wild than their stand — 123 runs off 216 balls, with 15 boundaries and 2 sixes — was their backstories.
Sundar last played first-class cricket in 2017. That he wasn't formally inducted into the squad tells you everything you need to know. Thakur, like the off-spinner, was supposed to be a net-bowler on the trip. Their primary purpose was to bowl long, unglamorous, behind-the-scenes spells to their more established compatriots in the nets. After the day's play, Thakur admitted that he wanted to spend time on the wicket.
"These are the moments we wait and live for," he said. "This time also I was only thinking that the longer I bat, the smaller their lead will be. Just wanted to spend time on the pitch."
The plan the two cooked up was simple enough. Considering their bowlers were visibly tiring, it was all about hanging in there. "We knew their bowlers were tiring," he said. "We knew if we hung in for one hour we would be on top. It was really important for us to hang in there. If someone lost his focus and tried a rash stroke, we would let him know and get them back to basics." Simple. Also effective.