There is nothing like a Test on the line going deep into its fifth day. It’s a slow-growing excitement that spreads through you into grandly hidden proportions, like a citadel of underground fungus beneath a forest. Fifth days are special because they’re tough. After all the strain and heat and effort, four nights of easing sore bodies into bed, the game asks for its denouement.
Those batting find the pitch at its worst, chance at its most capricious. Those bowling have their weariness consume their skill. We too readily conflate sporting achievement with courage, but here it applies.
India were brave against Australia at the SCG on Monday. Having been smashed up for 36 runs in Adelaide, they came back to win in Melbourne. Having lost seven, eight, nine senior players through the tour to absence and injury, they faced the last day of the third Test two wickets down, 309 runs behind.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane were the only two with the credentials to bat all day. The latter was out in the second over. But Pujara was brave in the way he dug in for 205 balls and Rishabh Pant was a different kind of brave in the way he came up the order to bat at No 5, still with a badly bruised arm from the first innings, and counterattacked audaciously for 97.
The prospect of a miracle win rose and then fell and from then on a different bravery was required. Hanuma Vihari had a bad hamstring, Ravichandran Ashwin has had a bad tour with the bat, yet somehow they faced a battering from short bowling to bat through 258 balls and saved the game. Australia’s bowlers were brave too: the 48 luckless overs sent down by Nathan Lyon, the ferocious accuracy from Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, and the late threat from Mitchell Starc.
But none of the toughness was conveyed by Tim Paine, the wicketkeeping captain standing up to the stumps behind Ashwin during a Lyon over late in the day, directing a stream of petty sniping into the cars and headphones and living rooms of millions of people around the world.
The chat isn’t worth quoting: start with cricketing threats in the classless vein of Michael Clarke, take a turn into childish territory about no friends and end by carrying on about Ashwin being unwanted by T20 teams. On the historical spectrum of sledging this was probably mild enough to be menthol. But it jarred nonetheless because it was Paine, the captain who for three years has driven the effort to build a better reputation and meet a better standard. Under the duress of a Test win slipping away, his standard slipped with it.
It’s all part of the one sorry tradition. Last week, Cricket Australia’s website published a piece about a teenage Shane Watson’s first-class debut for Tasmania in 2001, in which he was verbally abused non-stop with the Queensland captain, Stuart Law, the antagonist. Cricket’s magical thinking says that sharing a beer after a game can wash away any sins committed during it. In relating how Watson declined to offer this absolution, Law managed to make himself sound like the aggrieved party.
This week Warne and Andrew Symonds on Fox Sports didn’t realise they were on air while disdaining current player Marnus Labuschagne. For Labuschagne’s part, he was insufferable through the Sydney Test, leading appeals with wordless screams, chuntering endlessly from short-leg, no longer the shy new kid but feeling like the cock of the walk.
Maybe we’d have less veneration for players past if we’d had to sit through all their inane verbiage, but this is the age we live in. Paine knows where the stump mics are. He’s used them to his advantage, winning fans with family-friendly chatter when India toured two years ago. He knew they would pick him up this time.
You would think that during a match when the major story was Indian players being abused from the stands, and making their own stand against it, and when the previous evening Ashwin had been their eloquent spokesman on how hurtful that was – you would think that an Australian hopping into him the very next day would obviously be a terrible look.
Playing late on the fifth day is hard. The cumulative strain comes to bear. Paine had dropped two catches and would soon drop another. He was trying to manage his bowlers and was having the now-familiar dread that a Test win was slipping away. He was losing his rag.
All of that will be offered by way of excuse, but the hard moments are when your ideals are tested. When repairing a reputation, the work of years can be undone in seconds. Over those years, Australia’s captain has kept saying his team wants to play tough cricket, but this time he couldn’t keep it together when the cricket got tough.