Hanuma Vihari batted 161 balls and stayed in the middle for more than 50 overs - over 40 of those with a torn hamstring - to help India earn a draw in Sydney. That result set the platform for an even more miraculous win in Brisbane, which sealed what was considered a near-impossible series victory against Australia in Australia despite losing close to 10 players to injury and personal reasons. Vihari chose to not stay back for the Brisbane Test to be part of a potentially historic moment, instead focused on getting fit again to play the latter part of the upcoming home series against England. Already at the National Cricket Academy for rehabilitation, having followed every ball of Brisbane on TV, Vihari talks to ESPNcricinfo about the historic series in Australia.
What were you feeling when you were limping up the stairs at the SCG after saving the Test?
Two feelings came to mind. One was pain, the other was relief. The pain was there and sigh of relief that I could do the job for the team. It was sweet pain. The pain was all worth it at the end of the day. If I hadn't been able to save the match, it would have hurt more. But because we saved the Test, the pain was not so painful.
Did memories of Adelaide flash back at this time?
After the Adelaide Test, you won't believe, we as a team we never spoke about the game. We only felt that it has never happened before, I don't think it will ever happen again. It was a freak innings. So let's move on and let's look at it as a three-Test series from Melbourne. Now if you look at it, we have won the series 2-0. The Indian team, the character and the fight we show, we leave everything on the ground. That's the hallmark of the Indian team. That's exactly how we played.
We looked at the number of times you were not in control while playing a delivery. In this series, it has taken, on an average, nine to ten not-in-control balls for a wicket to fall. In that innings [36 all out], it took just three to four. I am sure you know this instinctively as batsmen, but did you need such numbers to reinforce the fact that it was a freak innings that day?
I read that article but we knew it, that every time that a good ball came, we edged it and it went straight to the fielder. It doesn't happen in cricket that way. If it does on a freak day, you accept it and move on. That is Test cricket at the end of the day. You can have days like that also. But we knew this would not happen very often - once in 60 years or so.
How did the evening after the SCG Test go?
I hardly had any sleep. Again, with pain. One thing was pain and the other thing was I was happy and overwhelmed with the respect and love I got on the internet, in the messages I got. I think I slept for one hour and got up again at 6 in the morning. That is the kind of feeling I got. I would say for all the years of hard work I had done in first-class cricket, where there are no people watching you play and you have to go through the grind and struggle, and to have 1.3 billion watching back home and all the people in the world watching you save a Test match... That was the thought that came into my mind. Real satisfaction of going through the grind in the first-class arena and then achieving this, the satisfaction was really amazing.
Have you ever been, at any level, in a match where your team has had so many injuries?
Never. This series has been a ride of emotions. We have been through the ups and downs, we have seen everything you can see in sports in one series. The way the support staff handled it... at no point were they panicked. At no point did they lose hope. They believed that whoever walked onto the park, we are "Team India" and we will get 100% on the ground.
Because of the Covid situation, the squad was big. But losing players still upsets the balance of the team. Sometimes you don't get the right combination. If you look at the Gabba Test, they took a punt on Washi [Washington Sundar] who never played first-class cricket in the last three years. Still they believed in the player. They knew his capability and ability. They have seen us play, they have seen us in the nets, they knew what we could do. Their task was to choose the right combination of players, and they believed whoever played could go and perform.
"At one point we joked that it felt like we were in a war with wounded soldiers. We will play the fourth Test with whoever is left standing. At one point it felt like that, but jokes apart the medical team did a tremendous job"
The actual physio and trainers, what all did they have to go through? What were the scenes in the dressing room?
Huge credit to the physios and the trainers. They had a tough time dealing with so many injuries. At no point did I feel they were panicked or worried or anything like that. They were quite calm. Both the physios and both the trainers. At one point we joked that it felt like we were in a war with wounded soldiers. We will play the fourth Test with whoever is left standing. At one point it felt like that, but jokes apart the medical team did a tremendous job.
But seriously, when did the team start believing you could save the Sydney Test?
If you look at the first session and most part of the second session, we were looking good for a win. The way Rishabh [Pant] and [Cheteshwar] Pujara played. To be honest, once they got out, I don't think a win was a possibility. Even before my injury, Ash [R Ashwin] was struggling with his back, [Ravindra] Jadeja could have played only a few overs if needed. The draw came in when we knew that Ash couldn't run, and then when my hamstring injury happened, we knew we just had to bat out time. And it is not an easy task [for one partnership] to bat out 43 overs. Australia, day five, against that attack.
We batted one ball at a time, one over at a time, me and Ash. We had a conversation every over about what we needed to do. The strategy also helped. We got messages from outside but we had already decided that he was going to face [Nathan] Lyon and I would face the fast bowlers. One he was batting well against Lyon and also I couldn't stretch against the spinner with my hamstring.
It panned out well. He was facing Lyon with ease on a day-five pitch, and I was pretty comfortable against the fast bowlers.
So before Pant got out, were you just batting normally or would you say you were actually going for the win?
No, no, not really. The talk in the huddle was let's bat normally. If we get close, then we will look at it. Never thought of chasing the target or anything.
But that's how Rishabh plays, isn't it? He just played his natural game. Other than that we were not thinking of drawing the game or winning the game. Ninety-eight overs is too long a time to plan or predict what will happen. We just have to see how the game will take its course and then react to the situation.
I mean if Pant plays defensively, he will likely get out. He also must know that...
You can't play for a draw from the first session. You must remember he still played 130 balls. If he doesn't play that way [his natural game], the bowlers will be on top from the first session. So really good on him to play the way he did.
Did you immediately know your injury was bad and you could put yourself out for a long time if you pushed yourself?
I knew it then and there that it was the end of my series. I knew it wasn't a cramp or anything minor. I knew straightaway that I had torn my hamstring. Because I have done that before, I knew how it feels. I couldn't walk or run. I knew it was a tear.
I knew whatever contribution I could make, whatever impact I had to have, it has to be in this time. In one way, the injury helped me with clarity of mind. I knew I just have to play close to the body and not try anything fancy because I am not looking for runs and I can't run anyway. It made things simpler for me to just be there and block balls that come my way.
When Ashwin got off the mark, he made you run that quick single. You were nearly run out...
Before that also I had told Ash I can't run. Instinctively he ran and I didn't have a choice. Before that run I didn't know if I could jog, but when I took that run I told Ash, see, I can't even jog. I can only walk. That too with pain. So he said, 'Okay, let's not run and play out the overs.'
Does he speak better Telugu or do you speak better Tamil?
He can speak better Telugu. I can't speak Tamil. I can only understand Tamil.
But we could pick up only Tamil on TV.
He spoke Telugu too. In Tamil he said, "Aadu mama, aadu mama." Aadu mama is like play, play. He was speaking both. Main thing was patthu-patthu ball adu. Think of ten-ten balls.
Were you counting "ten-ten balls"?
I was counting my six. So if I play my six, I was waiting for Ash to play his six. I knew if I played my six balls, I would get four minutes of rest where he plays the other six. Six balls of my strike, six balls of his strike. We believed once when the session started, we just batted. But after that, in the mandatory overs in the last hour, we said we will focus even harder. We believed then that we could actually do it. Before that we were just batting and taking our time and making sure we get as close to 6 o'clock as possible. In that last one hour, we knew we could achieve something special.
"In the tea break I took the injection. After tea... I couldn't feel my right leg at all. The numbness of the painkiller meant I didn't have any pain when standing, but I couldn't even feel my leg. And then when I ran it hurt."
Did that change your mindset now that you knew you were on the brink of something special?
Exactly. That's when the communication was even more important. That's when the Tamil and Telugu conversation happened. We hardly spoke before that. After that we knew we were getting close, we were pepping each other up, it was only a matter of time. That is when conversations happened.
What did you do during the tea break?
I got a painkiller injection. And got taped up. In my mind, I knew this is the innings I have to give it back to the team. I was thinking in my mind I have to do something and show the character and grit and determination. That I have to go and bat for two-and-a-half hours.
How many painkillers did you take?
One tablet when I first got injured and then the injection during the tea break.
It takes 15-20 minutes for it to kick in, right?
Yes. In the tea break I took the injection. After tea, it stopped hurting me but I felt a weakness in my right leg. I couldn't feel my right leg at all. The numbness of the painkiller meant I didn't have any pain when standing, but I couldn't even feel my leg. And then when I ran it hurt.
Was there a phase when it felt like it might be slipping away?
Only towards the end when I was dropped [by Tim Paine]. Mitchell Starc bowled a brilliant spell. He was reverse-swinging the ball, and it was moving late. That was the only phase I thought I have to focus a little bit harder. If you look at the match, that was the only phase where they troubled us. Initially, Ash had trouble with the short ball but after that he was comfortable.
Just overall, how difficult is it to face this Australian attack?
The thing is, the height they release from, and their pace, they hit the wicket hard. It is challenging but we showed in this Test series if you take up the challenge, then you can wear any bowler down. That's exactly what we did. We wore them down and we capitalised on any loose balls we got. That is very rare from them. Only when they are tired or once you have batted 70-80 overs, then you tend to get some runs out of them.
Especially Pat Cummins, he is like a machine. He gave nothing on the pads.
And he bowls those lengths. He bowls hard lengths. Not like he is coming and releasing it on a length. He hits it really hard. And it hits high up on the bat. So you have to be doubly focused on him.
But people talk about strike rates and strike rotation. You must tell people what a big risk it is to force the pace against them.
You can only experience it. You can't explain it. You can't explain how it feels facing up against them.
Any technical adjustment you made during the series?
In the last [third] Test, against Josh Hazlewood, I made a small adjustment to bat outside the crease. He is someone who hits the length consistently, so I wanted to make him bowl a different length. That was a tactical change. But other than that I batted the way I did in West Indies and New Zealand. I always felt I was batting well throughout the series but the runs never came in the first two Tests - I got a pretty good ball in the first Test, threw my wicket away in the second and then got run out in the first innings in Sydney. That didn't really help with the amount of runs I scored, but I always felt I was batting well.
In hindsight, do you feel that run in the first innings in Sydney was on?
In hindsight, I wouldn't say the run was on. It was an extraordinary piece of fielding from Hazlewood but still it wasn't necessary on my part to take a risky single. The wicket was playing so well that I could have waited and ground them, had a partnership with Pujara and got a big score. But yeah that was a brain-fade moment for me.
But if you think about it, can you find an explanation as to why this [being run out going for a quick single] happens in Test cricket?
I don't think I can. Sometimes you feel there is a run. In a split second you make the decision. Because I have stepped out and the momentum was there and the danger end was also mine. I thought I could reach. I didn't expect that kind of fielding from Josh. He was in the middle of a spell. He had bowled three-four overs in the spell and to come out and do that, we have to give credit to him as well. But as I said it wasn't unnecessary.
But when you pick out a fielder, even in that split second, do you know this guy is in the middle of a spell?
Yes. Exactly that is what I thought. But it didn't pan out well.
Just overall you have played only one Test at home, you are again missing a home series [against England], and you just get challenging assignments. Do you feel satisfied with what you have done at this point of your career?
I am really blessed to be part of this side. To be part of an Indian side winning abroad, winning twice in Australia, and the team management showing so much faith in me... The faith they show in me, I am really blessed and happy. I just want to repay that faith with good performances, whether it is home or abroad.
Did you watch the whole final Test?
Yeah, yeah, I was waking up at 5am and watching it on TV. I didn't miss a single ball. I was really happy and rooting for us to win.
It must have been tough coming back alone after having been part of such a great series.
I was gutted that I wasn't part of the historic Test at Gabba. You feel disappointed, but the reason I came back was I want to get fit as soon as possible and make sure I am available for selection for the last two Tests [against England]. That was why I came back.
So you have to go to the National Cricket Academy (NCA)?
I am in NCA [in Bengaluru] already. I reached yesterday and will start rehab tomorrow.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo