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Down but not out: India hoping against hope in final battle at Australia's fortress

They have kept the series alive with a hospital ward more than a cricket team, but will look for hope one final time

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
There have been just too many injuries and absences, and too many restrictions to stay mentally healthy for India  •  Getty Images

There have been just too many injuries and absences, and too many restrictions to stay mentally healthy for India  •  Getty Images

This is not a cricket series for India. This is a weird trip. It is the closest thing to a Bob Dylan song. Fantastical, epic, long, gibberish at times, deep in places, full of vivid imagery and non-sequiturs, painful and delightful and with a mind and rhythm of its own. Heroes, clowns, pantomime villains are all there - all in the backdrop of a biblical pandemic - and they are doing things that on the surface make no cricketing sense.
Dylan hates for his work to be quoted in contexts he never imagined but since he has given us so many of those written during a cultural phenomenon where context wasn't really lucid and well-defined, he leaves his songs open to being used in any context.
Some things are too hot to touch
The human mind can only stand so much
You won't win with a losing hand
If ever there was a losing hand, this is it. Players started falling even before the series started. Frayed minds on a long sojourn away from home not entirely unexpectedly triggered the victim complex when asked to follow stricter restrictions. One of the greatest bowling units of all time is being thwarted by a side whose best batsman is missing, who can't identify its openers and who might not even have a like-for-like replacement left for any of their players should he be concussed. Bowlers with no experience have picked up wickets with a plan that not long ago would have been dismissed as a negative and defensive strategy. This is high subversion.
If there aren't enough adversities, artificial villainy has been added to routine acts of absentmindedness or sledging. A non-interested party - former England players now working in the media - has joined in as part of their war minus the shooting, the Ashes. It is surreal. An India player that India loves to doubt has in turn touched a raw nerve with the Australia captain: a side not sure it can put 11 players on the park has exposed the home captain's insecurities about his own spot in the side.
And oh, there is no housekeeping. Like in a Dylan lyric, this seemingly innocuous thing assumes great importance for a team five months on the road and away from the family.
Mr Jinx and Miss Lucy, they jumped in the lake
I'm not that eager to make a mistake
People are crazy and times are strange
I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range
I used to care, but things have changed
Things have indeed changed. There have been just too many injuries and absences and too many restrictions to stay mentally healthy; but then they must be able to perform at elite level and be left open to the judgement of so many.
Perhaps it is okay to not care now. Just go out there and, as they say of down-and-out professional wrestlers, "kick out on instinct". This performance so far is already arguably India's best in an overseas series ever. No matter what happens in Brisbane. Perhaps it is okay to start preserving players for the home series against England. Like Dylan songs, these series keep coming at you thick and fast. So just cut your losses here, get the big boys to beat England 4-0 and see Australia at Lord's in the World Test Championship final?
If ever for one moment their tired bodies and minds thought of taking solace in losing one player too many - if Jasprit Bumrah or R Ashwin is forced out that should be it, right? - there is some hope staring them in the face.
There is 40% chance of a thunderstorm along with rain in the Wolloongabba suburb of Brisbane on Saturday. Sunday is cloudy. Monday has an 80% chance of thunderstorms and Tuesday 50%. And it's Queensland. It is never too far from a storm or "the wet".
You need something special all right
You need something special to give you hope
But hope's just a word
That maybe you said or maybe you heard
On some windy corner 'round a wide-angled curve
But that's what you need man, and you need it bad
And yer trouble is you know it too good
'Cause you look an' you start getting the chills
India have no business being alive in the series at this point of time - and of even having hope. But look at what all they have managed to achieve so far. Bowled out for 36; their captain, Mr Jinks, who ran out the regular captain when they were dominating, goes on and scores a stirring hundred to win India the Melbourne Test. In the process another bowler goes down, but India hang in for their lives and for a draw in Sydney. They are desperately unlucky in one regard, but in another they have things going their way. The second innings in Sydney cancels out all the ill luck during the 36 all out.
They have kept the series alive with a hospital ward more than a cricket team. Men with a nearly broken elbow, a torn hamstring and a badly tweaked back use the confidence that one with a broken thumb will come out to bat should he be required and combine with the much-maligned too-slow-Cheteshwar Pujara to earn India the draw.
Hope can be painful after you have given it your all just to stay alive, but India will have to look. One final time, they will have to look for hope. In their inexperienced bowling, in their weakened batting, in a wicketkeeper-batsman whose keeping not many rate, in some new shrewd tactic, in another heist, in another escape. A draw will be as good as a win, but they are going to Australia's fortress, the Gabba. Then again there is hope teasing them.
What if the wet can help them enough and they just load the side with all the batsmen they can round up? What if R Ashwin can run through the left-hand batsmen and there can be a collapse - things happen in cricket, you know? What if Australia get too desperate and get a pitch too loaded in favour of the bowlers, enough then for India's inexperienced attack to cash in on? If any of these or a combination of these happens, they could potentially take the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with them. Just imagine.
Kidding, right? Nothing is going to work now, right? Logic says that but this is a series in which you just can't say. It is a long run in which you have gone past the aching limbs and gasping lungs, you have enjoyed the runner's high, now you are close to the end and the body is shutting down.
And you yell to yourself and you throw down yer hat
Sayin', "Christ do I gotta be like that?
Ain't there no one here that knows where I'm at?
Ain't there no one here that knows how I feel?
Good god almighty that stuff ain't real

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo