India 389 for 7 (Gill 91, Pant 89*, Pujara 56, Cummins 4-55) and 336 beat Australia 369 and 294 by three wickets
Maverick turned mature and only three overs of the final Test of a superlative Test series were left when India produced a win for the ages at the Gabba. Punctuating the end was Rishabh Pant, newly minted superstar, who could barely hold it together at the presentation when he called this one of the best things to ever happen to him.
In cricketing terms, that thing was an expertly paced unbeaten 89 that helped shatter a 32-year streak of Australia not losing at this ground and sealed for India a 2-1 series win with three wickets in hand.
Pant’s dashing best came during the last hour of play, after a series of partnerships had taken India to within 63 runs of victory at which point they lost Mayank Agarwal. The burden of either pushing for a win or shutting the gates fell on Pant and debutant Washington Sundar.
To put it in terms that would be lost on their older team-mates, the two left-handers woke up and chose violence.
The final push began with Sundar taking on Pat Cummins, who had become the singular threat to India’s ambitions as the rest of the bowling tired out. Sundar got his first boundary against Cummins, a neat check-punch past mid-off, that signalled a change in tempo for India. What had been an endeavour to take the day as deep as possible, with as much sensible cricket as possible, would suddenly become a lively exercise in trying to hunt down the target as quickly as possible.
Cummins’ plan to counter that was to tuck Sundar up at his chest, only to be hooked for six. When the next ball flew over the cordon off the outside edge, all bets were off.
What that meant was Pant, having resisted going across the line for more than an hour following a stumping survival, was ready to open up the leg side against Nathan Lyon. The offspinner had shown no signs of trying to attack Pant in the last session, bowling wide from around the wicket to him with only a slip as a close-in fielder. If it was a play on Pant’s patience, it would come apart in the 94th over as Pant walked across his stumps to ramp him fine. A boisterous sweep to the deep midwicket fence came next ball, a crack in the pitch turned Lyon’s offbreak into a gigantic legbreak that was too much for Tim Paine, and that 15-run over took India within 24 runs of victory with six overs left.
Australia’s chances were, at this point, directly dependent on how chaotic the end would be. Sundar reverse-swept Lyon onto his own stumps, and hope sprung when first-innings batting hero Shardul Thakur miscued a slog to midwicket.
But chaos is how Pant makes a living. In the last over of the innings, he fell on his backside for a pulled boundary, survived a splice to sweeper cover as he looked to finish with a six, and managed to cross over when Thakur’s slog was still in the air. Josh Hazlewood had two balls at him, and an injured Navdeep Saini at the other end. He fired a full one down the leg side that Pant looked to sweep, one-handed, and missed. Pant was indignant at not being awarded a wide for it but was composed enough next ball to reach out and pat a tired attempted yorker past the bowler for the win.
Tired bowling had been the theme of the day for Australia. At the start, India made use of batting conditions that were a significant improvement on the previous day when Australia’s batsmen copped several deliveries that lifted up at them. That was perhaps the consequence of Australia being fuller because of the moisture from overnight rain. But that played into Shubman Gill‘s scoring options. With no demons and no lateral movement despite an overcast morning, the opener pushed into his forward stride often and with assurance as he single-handedly kept the score moving after Rohit Sharma had been nicked off early.
For Cheteshwar Pujara at the other end, the brief seemed to be to simply do what he does and be strong in defence. This seemed to be India’s game plan for the day – to take the match deep on both time and runs. For that, Gill and Pujara formed the perfect pair on the day.
On the flip side, what it did allow was time for Australia to adjust to try and use the cracks in the surface. That was the start of a day full of stingers for Pujara, who was hit on the helmet thrice during the course of the day. That was apart from a blow to the thumb that had him floored for over five minutes, and several bruises in the mid-riff and upper body as he endured to 8 off 94 at one point.
At the end of the 52nd over, Pujara had faced 62 short or short-of-good-length balls from the fast bowlers and been out of control against only ten of them. Of the ones he didn’t control, Pujara looked up for taking the blows; and ultimately, it was a strategy that came at a cost for Australia’s bowlers, as fatigue set in.
Pujara’s manner against the short ball was merely a reflection of how he chose to tackle it, rather than a sustained, effective strategy that would bring Australia close to getting him out. In contrast, Gill welcomed the short bowling, particularly from Mitchell Starc, whom he banished from the attack for the best part of 25 overs with a hooked six, a slash over gully and a pull through midwicket off consecutive deliveries in the 46th over. On the last ball of that over, which went for 20, even Pujara piled on the fast bowler with a boundary through point. In all, Starc bowled 16 overs and went for 75 without a wicket.
That period of counter-punching ended with Gill losing his shape, however, and edging Lyon to slip as he tried to drive big through the off side. There were still 52 overs left and just under 200 runs to get for India when he fell, and a forecast for drizzle in the middle session as well.
None of that seemed to play on Ajinkya Rahane‘s mind, the captain coming out slashing and scything as India persisted with their two-pronged strategy of batting for time on one end and runs on the other. That 22-ball 24 from Rahane ended when he took on Cummins and edged behind trying to play a late cut. It would be the last time India attempted to attack Cummins at all, but the tiring legs at the other end would continue to be targeted.
Pant was promoted to No. 5, as he had been in Sydney, and showed the kind of resolute batting that can be masked by the rest of his power game. In putting on 61 with Pujara, who was trapped by Cummins as soon as the second new ball was taken, Pant rarely took the minimal baits Australia had set for him. When he did, trying to clear a mid-on fielder who had just been brought in, Paine failed to gather the ball Lyon had spun past Pant. Though it’s never fair to say a singular event could have changed the match one way or another, it did form a poignant moment in the game. The Australian captain, who had said after the last Test that he couldn’t wait to get India to the Gabba, was the one to miss a chance that might have preserved the most dominant record in the Australian summer.
Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo