Eyes wide Rahane

The eyes. Wide. Round. Bright. Focused. They stare at the bowler. They stare at the ball. If eyes are the gateway to the soul, then Ajinkya Rahane’s soul is desperate to play the next ball well.

They stared like that when he first played international cricket. India had just completed their 0-4 tour of England in 2011. By the end of that trip, they were picking chubby bowlers from Miami’s South Beach. There was much posturing of, “Wait till we get England at home,” but it did little to change the fact they had been hung, drawn and pantsed by England for an entire summer.

That the summer had started with India as the No.1 Test team just made it all the more brutal. Their older batsman – Rahul Dravid aside – had not performed. Their bowlers had fallen down, or barely stood up. And their captain played most of his epic innings in monotone press conferences.

The limited-overs series started in the bowling-friendly part of the summer, in the bowling-friendly north. This unknown kid with fierce eyes played in the only T20. He opened. He made 61. Off 39 balls.

The next game was an ODI at Chester Le Street. It was cloudier than a parody of London. The kid with the eyes was opening with Parthiv Patel. The ball was swinging and seaming. Rahane was swinging and seeing.

There were pulls, clips, straight drives, lofted balls over cover and a smack over mid-on. Rahane looked calm, confident and like every bit the sort of player Indian cricket should be going mad for in the present circumstances. He should have been the poster boy for the next generation. A domestic run-scoring machine who can conquer the moving ball in the north, beyond the wall, while playing his shots. It was the sort of score that would have sent Australian fans into Uzmania or Quincitement.

Instead India kept Rahan in his most important role, Test benchwarmer. It was as if they hadn’t seen his first-class average, and just saw him as another hitter from the IPL. They certainly didn’t see him.

Rahane was there, he was always there. His stats weren’t countered in runs, but in how many times he was out on the field giving a water bottle to a more in-favour team-mate. Even before those England innings in blue clothes he was in a squad. Rahane was in many squads. Seven. While eight players made debuts before he did.

When he finally played a Test, he was at home, playing the fourth and un-deciding match against a broken Australia. He made 7 and 1. The second dismissal was to Glenn Maxwell. To this day, Rahane averages 4 at home.

Virat Kohli has made four hundreds in Australia, but away he averages nine less than he does at home. M Vijay averages 17 less. Cheteshwar Pujara 46 less. Dhawan 51 less. And Rohit Sharma a monumental 267 less. Some are small sample sizes. Sometimes they mean nothing. But while Test cricket seems to be getting tougher to conquer away from home, Rahane does that.

Rahane’s average away from home is 48. That incudes four tours: Dale Steyn’s South Africa, Trent Boult’s New Zealand, James Anderson’s England, and Ryan Harris’ Australia. His top scores in these countries are 96, 118, 103 and 147.

The 103 at Lord’s this year gave India one of their greatest ever wins. Ishant Sharma did the glory stuff, but Rahane did the gutsy stuff. India were 145 for 7. The batting guns just disappeared. Dhawan the movie star. Pujara the future. Vijay the spine. Kohli the megastar. Unflinching. Uncompromised. Unflustered. Rahane’s eyes watch carefully, his bat pushes calmly. He falls over. He gets hit. He plays and misses. He fights and scratches. He gets India to 295.

India win by fewer than 103 runs.

R Ashwin suggested India would make 650 in this Test. Rahane would probably never make a comment like that. When he walked in, that total was more than 500 short. He scores in boundaries. And delicate threes. Drives, dabs and pulls. Lyon drops a sitter. Rahane keeps scoring. He flies past megastar Kohli. It’s not a race, but he does beat Kohli to his hundred.

Rahane keeps going. Hazlewood hits him. He hits Hazlewood hard. Johnson tries a full over of short stuff. Rahane beefs him with a pull slog then cashes in on the attempted yorker before smashing another pull shot. It’s only two excitable back-to-back sweeps that eventually get him.

The eyes. Wide. Round. Bright. Focused. They stare at the umpire. They stare at the finger.

Rahane took seven series to get off the bench. He took four series to go from waterboy to warrior.

Epping to Jolimont – The G at the end of the line

The Epping line was a train line from Epping to the centre of Melbourne. A suburb of little to no interest to those who didn’t happen to live there, a mention of it is usually met with, “Where’s that?” The line was built originally because locals wanted the city’s sewage for their farms. Instead the lines went out to Werribee; Epping wasn’t good enough for Melbourne’s shit.

Even the first station building was a second-hand import from somewhere else unmemorable: Epping couldn’t even get an original awful-looking building. The next station building had all the charm of a shoebox. The dim sims, a Melbourne Chinese hybrid delicacy, would sit and sweat in the bain marie of the hot box someone had just plonked down outside the station. It was an ugly, hot and depressing station. The trains were often not air-conditioned. They had the requisite tags from wannabe graffiti stars, very few with any artistic merit. Chewing gum helped give the seats more padding. And perhaps most awfully, the trains stopped at every single station every single time. Plus abnormally long delays at Keon Park and just before Clifton Hill (not far from the Maccas with the brothel next door).

On the entire line, there is little inspiring architecture or by way of stunning vistas: It’s largely overcrowded roads, suburban back fences, ghostly football grounds, junkies, and the special Merri Creek. There are 20 stops before the city on the 21.2km journey.

The 20th stop is the important one, perhaps the most special train station in the world: Jolimont. Also known as Jolimont – MCG.

I grew up a seven-minute walk and 21.2km from Melbourne. It felt like 2000km. But the one thing that made us feel special was the direct line to the MCG.

The thrill started with the trip to the station. I would get excited by arriving at the station. By the train arriving. By the train leaving. By each and every station, even Ruthven. By Preston City Oval. By the first sight of the light towers just after Clifton Hill. By the Pies’ Victoria Park. By the apocalyptically empty West Richmond Station. And then as you come out of a short tunnel from West Richmond, you see Jolimont station. It has these two matching awnings that give cover to about 12 people. It’s old, and not without a certain charm. That charm quickly fades when you realise the toilets aren’t always open, and that most of the time the rats outnumber the people.

The station is under the Hilton Hotel, big and red. You queue to leave the station – not to show your ticket, it’s usually too busy for anyone to care – as it seems the whole train has found their stop. There is always one person who gets bumped into because they are staring at the ground. The trees try to cover it, but there just aren’t enough trees in the world to cover something this big.

You walk up, either on the road, or just over the grass of Yarra Park (which is, on this day, and many like it, a quickly filling car park).You head towards whichever gate you want. Towards the part of thick concrete and throbbing steel that will let you in. You will know your side of the ground beforehand; otherwise the trek around it will be longer than a Test match. Members, all in collared shirts, will drift around to gate 1, and the practice nets. You will probably go to the left with the general public. Outside, the ground will be filled with whatever colours are on show that day. It will be packed with people. No matter how many people are inside the ground at any one time, it always feel like more were outside.

Lining up to enter, you will, for the first time, be under a light tower; it will tickle the probably overcast sky. If you look back you can still see the Hilton from a few gates, but once you’re at the ground, you rarely look back at the world. A surprisingly cold metal turnstile will clunk open as you enter. You won’t see many blades of grass at this point; you’re still in the outer ring. You will see a lot of concrete. Then you’ll go past the beer queues and be offered a hot pie by a seat-to-seat salesman until you’re at Melbourne’s best walkway. A walkway that allows you to wander around the thing you came to stare at. That magical sandy grass.

You are there, right in front of it. A kid from nowhere place, in the world’s greatest place.

Melbourne can be unremarkable at first glance. There are no amazing bridges for tourists to look at. No legendary giant rocks to clamber over. And no tropical coral reefs to float around. You don’t get a tan in Melbourne. Godzilla and other Kaiju don’t stomp up Port Philip Bay in their films, they do it in Sydney Harbour, because the Harbour is the proper place for giant film montages. Melbourne’s biggest tourist attractions are clocks out the front of a train station, graffiti walls in the back laneways. And a dirty river. It’s just a city made up of many different kinds of villages that are great to live in.

It is where Melbourne screams at the night. Barks at the day. Spends its wages. Barracks. Sledges. Cries. Laughs. Wins. Loses. And sometimes draws
With one special attraction. A sporting ground. The Melbourne Cricket Ground. The MCG. The G.

A stadium that has had the queen, the pope, Michael Jackson, an Olympics, Betty Cuthbert, Ron McKeown and Sachin Tendulkar all out on it. A stadium that had 130,000 Pentecostal preacher (probably, possibly) patrons in it. That found 121,696 fans watching Carlton run away with the AFL grand final after Peter McKenna was knocked out by one of his own players. Where over 10% of the city’s population would come for just one match. And more than three million times a year do the turnstiles click over.

It is Melbourne’s gathering place. It is where Melbourne screams at the night. Barks at the day. Spends its wages. Barracks. Sledges. Cries. Laughs. Wins. Loses. And sometimes draws.

It is the place with light towers so high they can only be compensating for something. It has legends around it. It builds legends in it. It’s a sporting coliseum that is more than its concrete, more than its size, more than just Melbourne’s.

In 2000 years it will be the MCG that defines the Melbourne of now. Either in ruins, or as a 4D virtual reality construct.

I’ve been there when only a handful of people were there, waiting for the covers to come off for one of its oldest tenants, the Victoria cricket team, to continue a rain-affected Shield Match. And when there were almost 100,000 football fans calling the umpire maggots and singing campy World War I songs as their team beat the team from just down the road. It is special every time. It can make you breathless, with awe or a punch. It has its own feel. A Melbourne superiority complex. It doesn’t need you to know it’s better than somewhere else, it knows it.

As a player, you have to win the stadium. Even as a fan, you have to win it.

The first time I was there, the crowd called Gary Ablett, a man known as god, something far less reverential. The first time I saw the cricket, Mike Whitney fell over and people laughed. I’ve seen players from Pakenham and Pakistan hit with flags. When it hates, it hates hard. Racism, sexism and homophobia spew into the East Richmond air as much as adulation and hero worship do. It’s everything right about Australia one minute, and everything wrong about it seconds later.

The latest AFL grand final was another perfect day at the G with a massive crowd and half the country watching it on their TVs. Out on the ground was one of Australia’s greatest sportsmen, Adam Goodes. He was booed. Goodes is an indigenous star, bred in Victoria, playing the local game and the current Australian of the Year. He has also won two AFL premierships and two Brownlows (AFL’s highest honour). A few years ago, Shane Warne had to walk onto the MCG to stop a near-90,000 crowd piffing VB stubbies and golf balls at English outfielders during an ODI. The G walks the line, and not always well.

That was an ODI I was at. And I remember very little – actually, nothing at all – about the match, but I remember the crowd. I was also there the day a record number were hauled up for bad behaviour. Back in the days of my dad, (the “Lillee, Lillee” days) fans would take a giant foam esky full of beer into the ground. If the play finished, they would continue to sit there until the beer finished.

They call it the people’s ground. It’s a catchy slogan that forgets the rights of the Victorian government, MCG Trust and Melbourne Cricket Club, but it’s also startlingly true. You wouldn’t call Lord’s, with its possessive apostrophe, a people’s ground. And Eden Gardens is owned and run by the Indian Army. The G is part of the people. It’s made of grass, Merri Creek, sand, concrete and metal. If there were to be a revolution in Australia, the MCG would be involved. The noise on a special day isn’t that what crowds produce in other places. You get standing ovations in the other Test grounds; you get screaming ovations at the G. If the G likes you, you become a legend. It doesn’t really matter if you are or not. You could be Dennis Lillee or Merv Hughes, Ricky Ponting or Dean Jones, once they throw their scream behind you, you’re a legend.

You can’t take beer bottles – or golf balls, I assume – into the ground anymore. If you managed to get one in, you’d probably be arrested and put into a bunker under the ground for life. Melbourne, and the G, has changed. It is now a city of rules and regulations. Everything must be family-friendly and sanitised. The people swear less as they leave the ground, and they are often soundtracked by the sound of “Classical Gas” being played by a quality busker.

You can still get beer and pies, but the pies can be purchased gluten-free and the beer is mid-strength. This is because the MCG, at any one time, reflects society at large. Over the years, the seats have gotten bigger, as the people have gotten fatter. Corporate suites are everywhere. There are MCC members and AFL members. There are fewer tickets sold at the people’s ground despite the fact that Melbourne has almost tripled its population since the first time more than 100,000 people were counted.

It has transformed from a place of sport to a place of sport business. A sports marketing masterpiece.

But it is still the people’s ground, their bucket, pulpit and canvas. You don’t have to be a sports fan to go to the G, you just have to be in Melbourne. Chances are, it will suck you in at least once. It’s not part of Melbourne, it is Melbourne.

I was from the outer suburbs of a city few people know much about, in a country in the southern hemisphere several light years away from the rest of the world. But we had a train to the MCG. And to us, the G was the centre of the universe, even if the universe didn’t know it.

At the end of the match, the crowds spilled back into Melbourne, everyone zigzagged towards the Yarra Park car park, pubs, trams, footpaths into town, or Richmond station. We had our family plan: walk towards the right of the Hilton, which had somehow shrunk since we’d last seen it. My dad would tell me, “See the Hilton Hotel, if you ever get lost, walk to right of that. That’s where Jolimont station is, that’s our station”. Our station. The people’s station.

I’m from Epping, Melbourne, Victoria, and Australia. And cricket. The Melbourne Cricket Ground is all of theirs.

Our ground.

India’s fight to the end

India have often rolled over and cried in overseas Tests. But not here. They kicked and screamed right until the end. No retreat, no surrender. Rohit Sharma is a man with the skills to change a Test in a session. Here he changed a Test in a sentence.

Virat Kohli was aggressive before the first Test. He wanted everyone to know that he would be attacking and proactive. That he wouldn’t roll over. That he wouldn’t do what India did every series and expect different results. Kohli delivered. India were aggressive. India were attacking.

On the first morning they attacked the stumps. They had a plan to bowl round the wicket and full. They stuck to it. It was obviously not a great strategy and Australia scored at ease. But they were making the play, even the bad play. Then Varun Aaron bowled the first bouncer. Not afraid to bother anyone. Just doing what they thought they needed to do. They also kept the field up.

It didn’t work. Their two early wickets were nice, but once Warner and Clarke, Warner and Smith, Smith and Clarke were together, it all went bad. Ishant Sharma went at three an over. Karn Sharma at four. Mohammed Shami at five. And Aaron at six, or 5.9. It is hard to attack well with these numbers.

Karn was an attacking move in himself. R Ashwin is a better bowler. R Ashwin is a better batsman. R Ashwin is an offspinner. So Kohli thought Adelaide might suit the legspinner better. It might have, with a better legspinner. Karn was starting his career on a ground with short square boundaries against Warner and Clarke. It wasn’t ideal, but Kohli wanted something different. Last time Ashwin gave India five wickets for 267 runs in Adelaide. It isn’t match-winning, but the safe and reliable thing to do was pick him again. India didn’t. They picked three quicks who can’t bat and one new leggie. Only Ishant came off. But none of it was defensive.

Despite the fact they had conceded over 500, India didn’t shut up shop and take time out of the game. Their top six all played their shots. They tried to put pressure on the bowlers, and they came after Nathan Lyon. When Kohli was hit on the badge, he didn’t want people’s concern. He wanted to face the next ball. His cover drive after lunch was the shot of a man making a point. When Kohli was out, their tail swung, which could be deemed as part of their aggressive game plan, or just because that is pretty much all they can do.

When Australia set the target, India had a defensive field. But not a defensive mindset. Kohli went out of his way to make it known to every single Australia player that they were still going for victory. Chris Rogers certainly saw it as Kohli sent him off. Warner got it in his premature send-off. And then the rest of that afternoon was a series of exchanges between players on the field. No one would accuse the Indians of backing down.

There was not a single moment during the chase on the last day that ever hinted at the India players going for a draw. They batted for a win, at times recklessly, at times magnificently. Both seemed strange, both were captivating. Wriddhiman Saha’s innings was full of aggression, then one attempt he’ll never forget. But what he and Kohli were trying to do was important. Hitting Lyon out of the attack would give them a chance to take some runs from the friendlier seamers.

Kohli did it with magnificence and grace. Saha did it like he was trying to get a late-night kebab. India went down swinging. Their last wicket was stumped.

Play 06:24
Agarkar: Australia responded better to the big moments
India have often rolled over and cried in overseas Tests. But not here. They kicked and screamed right until the end. No retreat, no surrender. Rohit Sharma is a man with the skills to change a Test in a session. Here he changed a Test in a sentence.

Virat Kohli was aggressive before the first Test. He wanted everyone to know that he would be attacking and proactive. That he wouldn’t roll over. That he wouldn’t do what India did every series and expect different results. Kohli delivered. India were aggressive. India were attacking.

On the first morning they attacked the stumps. They had a plan to bowl round the wicket and full. They stuck to it. It was obviously not a great strategy and Australia scored at ease. But they were making the play, even the bad play. Then Varun Aaron bowled the first bouncer. Not afraid to bother anyone. Just doing what they thought they needed to do. They also kept the field up.

It didn’t work. Their two early wickets were nice, but once Warner and Clarke, Warner and Smith, Smith and Clarke were together, it all went bad. Ishant Sharma went at three an over. Karn Sharma at four. Mohammed Shami at five. And Aaron at six, or 5.9. It is hard to attack well with these numbers.

Karn was an attacking move in himself. R Ashwin is a better bowler. R Ashwin is a better batsman. R Ashwin is an offspinner. So Kohli thought Adelaide might suit the legspinner better. It might have, with a better legspinner. Karn was starting his career on a ground with short square boundaries against Warner and Clarke. It wasn’t ideal, but Kohli wanted something different. Last time Ashwin gave India five wickets for 267 runs in Adelaide. It isn’t match-winning, but the safe and reliable thing to do was pick him again. India didn’t. They picked three quicks who can’t bat and one new leggie. Only Ishant came off. But none of it was defensive.

Despite the fact they had conceded over 500, India didn’t shut up shop and take time out of the game. Their top six all played their shots. They tried to put pressure on the bowlers, and they came after Nathan Lyon. When Kohli was hit on the badge, he didn’t want people’s concern. He wanted to face the next ball. His cover drive after lunch was the shot of a man making a point. When Kohli was out, their tail swung, which could be deemed as part of their aggressive game plan, or just because that is pretty much all they can do.

When Australia set the target, India had a defensive field. But not a defensive mindset. Kohli went out of his way to make it known to every single Australia player that they were still going for victory. Chris Rogers certainly saw it as Kohli sent him off. Warner got it in his premature send-off. And then the rest of that afternoon was a series of exchanges between players on the field. No one would accuse the Indians of backing down.

There was not a single moment during the chase on the last day that ever hinted at the India players going for a draw. They batted for a win, at times recklessly, at times magnificently. Both seemed strange, both were captivating. Wriddhiman Saha’s innings was full of aggression, then one attempt he’ll never forget. But what he and Kohli were trying to do was important. Hitting Lyon out of the attack would give them a chance to take some runs from the friendlier seamers.

Kohli did it with magnificence and grace. Saha did it like he was trying to get a late-night kebab. India went down swinging. Their last wicket was stumped.

Kohli and Dhoni have been attacking captains this series © AFP
It wasn’t the first occasion this year that India had been close to victory, only to lose. At the Wanderers they were close to winning, or losing, when South Africa called off the chase with eight runs needed and three wickets in hand. At Trent Bridge, India made a respectable 457 and had England an even more respectable 9 for 298, before conceding the lead and having to fight to draw the match on the final day. At the Basin Reserve they were 246 runs ahead after one innings. New Zealand made 680 in their second. All of these were India being in front, and then letting it go. At Adelaide they were behind for 13 straight sessions. It wasn’t until late in the 14th that they finally got on even terms. The 15th was their problem.

Duncan and Dhoni are no longer the only big names in town.

Kohli was given a lot of credit for this new way of play. And he should have been, two hundreds and all. But Ravi Shastri was there as well. Even if not all the Channel Nine commentators knew about his new position as India team director. We have all spent many years with Shastri in our lounge rooms, often booming. He is a booming sort of man. A man of big impact, not subtly.

Shastri won’t want to be part of a team that isn’t trying to be the best. He wouldn’t want them to roll over and die. He has a reputation. He is the loudest voice of Indian cricket. He wants the team to be as dominant on the field as the BCCI is off it. He wants “India, superpower”.

At the Gabba, India batted first. It was the right thing to do. They often bat first. But it just felt right. The pitch did look green in the days leading up. They could have taken the cowardly way out and said they saw something in the wicket. It has happened here before. They didn’t.

Their batting was also aggressive. Again. M Vijay went aerial often. There were shots over cover that might have been heat strokes, but they were aggressive ones. He wasn’t just sitting back and scoring, he wanted to be on top. As Australia got injured, the Indians also went after Lyon again. When Mitchell Starc could bowl, he probably wished he hadn’t.

Even six wickets down, Ashwin and Dhoni were scoring quickly. Dhoni was trying to end Starc spells quickly to tire out Johnson. And Johnson was tired. And wicketless.

In the field Dhoni had catchers everywhere. It’s not that unusual for him to have 7-2 and 8-1 fields. But usually it is to bore out the opposition. This was to catch them out. There were slips and gullies everywhere; it was like we were back in the 90s.

The umpires came to the Indians and asked if they wanted to stay out and bowl spin as it got dark on the second evening. They didn’t. They wanted to attack with their quicks, they didn’t want a part-time spinner wasting overs hoping Ashwin got lucky. The Australians strolled off. The Indians went into the tightest of huddles. This was a team that believed it could win.

Ishant bowled nine straight overs either side of tea and took Warner with a beauty © Getty Images
The third morning they kept playing that way. Dhoni attacked. The bowlers kept it tight as well. Ishant attacked the top of off stump, and Mitchell Marsh was out neither attacking nor defending. Ishant let Marsh know what he thought of the leave.

When Brad Haddin came in, Aaron came round the wicket. At him. Up him. Into him. Into the hands of short leg.

The Indians were excited, they were frothing. And when Johnson came in, Rohit asked him about his match -wicket tally. Many others also had a word. The chat level was back to the afternoon fights at Adelaide. It was attacking. It was aggressive. It was a mistake.

VVS Laxman tweeted, “When an Aussie sledges it’s aggression but if an Indian sledges it’s unnecessary & foolish. Bottom line – Ind didn’t bowl well 2 Mitch.” And he has a point. But you also don’t sledge everyone. Johnson is a slow starter. He leaves balls early he should hit. He wafts early before putting his all into it. He doesn’t commit early until he’s settled.

Getting half your team to scream at him might make him focus more. Questioning his bowling might want him to do you over.

It wasn’t just words of course. They also bowled short to him, VVS was right about that. Like the first morning at Adelaide, they had a plan. Bounce him. One pull shot was easily dealt with to the rope. Another was cannoned there. Then there was a mishit, a ball in the air, one that could have carried to a fielder. It didn’t.

At Lord’s they gambled with the short ball and won a Test match. Here they gambled with it and lost one. They should have pitched up far earlier. But they were attacking and aggressive, as they have been all tour.

It was embarrassing for India as Smith barely had to do a thing, and Johnson swung wildly to mock them. When they got to lunch they had a moment to rethink, and after lunch, they played for the second new ball. Ashwin bowled three overs, Rohit bowled with five men on the rope. It did mean they had less chance of sledging anyone into a match-winning performance, but it was their most defensive cricket of the day, Test or series.

Just a day earlier, with Shane Watson 25 from 25, and looking dangerous, Dhoni had mid-on and mid-off up. Ashwin said: “Those are the plans. I don’t just put the point back or long-on back to save four runs. That’s not in me. If that’s how people see it, I can’t help it.”

Now Dhoni did something different. A six from Johnson over long-on kept the field up. But then Dhoni moved long-on back anyway. A straight four moved mid-off back straight away.

The pitch was also at its flattest. And it was hot. The Australians just milked the Indians who were just hoping for a break. They could have been off far earlier, but Dhoni didn’t move for a catch. This was the old India. The away-from-home India.

After ten overs, India were 41. They had lost no wickets. They were scoring well. They had put some pressure back on Australia. Losing only one wicket set up the next day. There was plenty of time, a good pitch and Australia were a bowler down. Dhawan and Pujara would come out and keep pushing.

But Dhawan never made it. The most aggressive thing India did in that first session was send out a press release accusing the Gabba groundstaff of not preparing new practice tracks, and that it caused discomfort to Kohli and injury to Dhawan.

There were slips and gullies everywhere © Getty Images
The rest was a procession. The wickets came so fast, at times it was hard to work out whether all the dismissals were out. People just kept leaving the field. Some tried to be attacking, like Dhoni who was almost mid-pitch when he was out lbw, but mostly it was a blur of wickets. There were six. It felt like eight.

When they left the ground, Watson decided to give Dhawan some advice. Rohit and Watson have to be vying for fans’ most-hated crowns all series. They have both used their mouths as much as their bats. Whatever Watson, and then Haddin, and then Warner said to Dhawan, after lunch he was a different player.

Perhaps the message from the team was to just hit out. Because Dhawan tried to slog Watson from the start. His first attempt, a mishit over mid-on, wasn’t subtle attacking, it was naked aggression. He kept going. And the more he attacked, the worse Australia looked. He crashed balls through cover, he guided balls to third man, he lapped Lyon, he swiped over mid-on, he jabbed pull shots and he slashed. When not doing that, he managed to keep the strike as Smith was left with one of his biggest decisions: should we try and get him out, or should we keep him off strike? Dhawan might have attacked bowlers better before, but this was just the aggression that was needed, and Australia were just lucky he missed one.

Dhawan’s knock was two-thirds of the total Australia needed, 128 runs was all India had. Dhoni didn’t over-attack. He didn’t give away easy singles. But he tried to play the smartest game he could. Five catchers, in random positions, hoping for the best. It was about all he could do on a pitch you could still score fast on, where you only had 128 in the bank.

Ishant bowled nine straight overs either side of tea. Dhoni backed him. He took Warner with a beauty. Played the short-ball game with Watson, and then told him about the wicket. And one of the gambling fielders Dhoni had took the catch of Rogers.

Dhoni kept going. They attacked the body of Shaun Marsh and found the glove. A little more glove, and Dhoni and leg slip just watch runs go by them. They got lucky with the run-out, as Smith didn’t need two. But they made that luck by making him think he did. Maybe even by Aaron’s aggressive body positioning.

They then took Haddin on with the short ball. Such a risk. They had fine leg 25 metres in from the boundary. Haddin had already looked a bit tentative, but it is Haddin. He is just as likely to middle one and send it flying over the two men out. Instead he found one. The next over Australia had won.

Four wickets. Forty-eight runs. 0-2.

They are losing, but they are making Australia win. They are losing, but they are aggressive. They are attacking, until there is nothing left to attack. One shot, one bouncer and one sentence at a time.

the evolution of steve smith

Thirty-three ODIS. Twenty T20s. Five Tests. Two fifties. Both in Tests.

That was Steven Smith before the March 14, 2013. Six-hundred and forty-three days later, he was captain of his country.

Pulls up his right pad.

When it was suggested by ESPNcricinfo’s Daniel Brettig in May last year that Smith might be the next captain of his country, not everyone took it well.

“This article is complete trash. For starters, Smith isn’t good enough a player to even consider for the Test side as yet and unless he scores a heck of runs, shouldn’t be considered as his bowling is almost as bad as this article.”

“If Steven Smith is the answer then we are looking down the barrel of the worst period in Australian cricket history. The only part of his game that is remotely Test standard is his fielding.”

“Steven Smith, captain of Australia…god help us, how bad are our stocks?”

Those were just the commenters. Brettig wasn’t suggesting Smith take over the next day, or even any time soon. Just that, despite Smith’s record and form, there was really no one else out there. Smith had just made a very good 92 in Mohali, but one that looked blander with the Mitchell Starc and Shikhar Dhawan madness that followed. It also meant that he’d only made three international fifties from 60 international matches. And despite some suggestions that he could captain, and that his batting had matured, he wasn’t going to the Ashes.

I, like many of those commenters, people in bars and those on social media, was not convinced that Smith had changed. He was still the twitchy ball of mess that pushed at balls outside off stump like a junkie looking for a fix. India suited his feet; England would not suit his hands.

My exact words were, “I’d pick a dead donkey before I’d send Smith to England with his technique.” I was wrong. The others were wrong.

Steven Smith was the right man.

In the first innings in Nottingham, the Australian batting was in the mire. Three men made over 15. Ashton Agar. Phillip Hughes. Smith. At 22 for 3, most Australian fans wanted anyone but Smith walking out. Smith was still Smith. Early on he played a ball to point, while his groin when towards square leg.

It was Smith who lasted to stumps, who pulled Australia towards the England total, who gave any hope. Smith who pulled the short balls, used his feet to Swann and handled Anderson at his best.

But the following morning he was out nicking behind, outside off. Hughes batted on. Both were picked very early on as freakish talents with even freakier techniques. Both were dropped because of these flaws. Both were often written off by people because of it.

Smith’s innings is now something very special. It was against a rampant England, on a pitch neither team could bat on. It was composed. It was sensible. It wasn’t the knock of an allrounder. Or project player. It was actually a top-class innings. But Agar and Hughes then stole all the news. And it was only a 50. His fourth in Tests.

Pulls up his left pad.

There have been 33 Test captains younger than Steven Smith. Maybe three who looked younger.

Graeme Smith was younger. Way younger. But looked older. Bigger and more durable. If Steven’s appointment shocked some and seemed rash, compared to Graeme’s it was the most sensible decision in the world. That was nothing more than a hunch based on a cocky young kid, and needing Shaun Pollock to be a scapegoat. Graeme had less captaincy experience than Steven. Was years younger. Had barely played outside of South Africa. It was perhaps one of the worst decisions in South African cricket history. And probably one of the best.

South Africa dropped a captain after winning 13 of their previous 16 Test series, and tapped a kid based on one World Cup warm-up match.

Had South Africa worked out Duckworth Lewis… Had Gary Kirsten been younger… Had Mark Boucher not been a wicketkeeper… Had Jacques Kallis not been Jacques Kallis… Had Shaun Pollock not been the scapegoat… Then, Graeme Smith wouldn’t have taken over.

Had Australia not been so rubbish in India… Had Mickey Arthur not been fired… Had Australia not had any injuries… Had Michael Clarke’s body actually held up… Then, Steven Smith wouldn’t have taken over.

Adjusts his thigh pad.

The first Test 50 was perhaps the most insane one. Australia had been bowled out for 88 in the first innings. They were six down and only 47 runs in front when Smith came in. The bowlers were Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir, Umar Gul and Danish Kaneria. Pakistan in excelsis.

Smith fiddled and left while barely scoring. His first 50 balls came with 19 runs. Then the tail went out. And Smith decided to hit the ball. He pulled. He slogged. He drove. He danced. He twirled. He twitched. He was the last man out for 77, from 100 balls.

Ponting was asked in the press conference if Smith was going to put pressure on Marcus North at six. Ponting said no. It was clear that he saw this as a charming fluke; he called the runs “pretty entertaining and very valuable”. Smith was a cheeky slogger who could field the house down, but was outbowled by Marcus North and not a real batsman.

Smith didn’t even keep his place in the next two Tests, despite the fact they were in India. His bowling went away like one of his floated full tosses.

Shakes his inner thigh pad.

It wasn’t even that long ago Michael Clarke was trying to get him dates via Twitter. There are photos out there of Steven Smith posing with lion cubs, having perhaps the best time of any human ever in the history of the world. There is another where he wears a hat with a propeller on it. Smiling like he’s found the secret to eternal happiness in hat form. And a photo shoot where he stands proudly in a zebra onesie. Complete with a hood. And a tail.

Australian cricketers are certainly not new to embarrassing photos. Shane Warne has had a few. Some of Clarke’s underwear photos are certainly not great. But Smith’s are something different. They’re the photos of a uni student on Facebook. Not a Test captain. He doesn’t look drunk in them. He looks incredibly happy. Alive. Young. And un-captain like.

But then on the field, whether for Rajasthan Royals, Sydney Sixers or New South Wales, something turns. He’s still that kid, but he’s that kid with a job to do. The senior players see the cheeky face, the propeller hats, and his youth, and some have tried to push him. Stuart MacGill once received unfriendly language when questioning something Smith said. He may look like a kid on a Contiki tour, but he’s got Australian Captain mongrel beneath those cheeks.

Tweaks his box.

After Smith’s first two Tests, he only had to wait a few more to be back in the squad. He was the last man sent home from the 2010-11 Ashes Gabba Test. He was very upset at Brisbane airport when leaving. By the third, at the WACA, he was back. Batting at six. Replacing Marcus North. It was very confusing. Smith failed to make 50 in his first five comeback innings. In the sixth, as England warmed up their celebratory sprinkler moves, he made a not out 50, his second. But he had started in Perth as a number six. By Sydney he was moved one spot down to number seven.

It was at this point that it was clear that it wasn’t just fans that had no idea what Steven Smith was – the Australian team and management didn’t either. Was he a number eight who could bowl? A number six who could bat? Or a number seven who fielded really well?

Pushes his helmet tighter on his head.

Australia were playing a warm-up against Pakistan A in Sharjah. Brad Haddin had been replaced by a local keeper. Then Clarke left the field. But it was Chris Rogers who took charge of the team. That was in October.

Even when Smith was in charge, people didn’t always know it. The announcer at the Shield final said, “The NSW captain, Steven O’Keefe.” That was in March.

Fiddles with his shirt collar.

Australian captains seem to be absurdly good fielders. Mark Taylor didn’t really move, but he swallowed everything in his path. Allan Border made short midwicket look like a cool place to field. Bob Simpson caught with his chest. Ricky Ponting was an expert in every single position on a fielding map.

Smith is following this tradition. The best fielders seem to know where the ball is going. They read the ball, the pitch, the hands, the bat, the feet, and they are there before most batsmen know where they are hitting it. Smith up close is quite like that. He seems to move before the shot, like he’s privy to some information that we aren’t. Plus he is quick. His hands are great. His body morphs into whatever it needs to be to find the ball. And when he has it, he’s deadly with the stumps.

When he took the one-handed diving screamer in this match, it just felt normal. Had it been Shane Watson, or a Marsh, there might have been real surprise. But Smith seems to have been flying sideways since the first time we saw him. Had he not made it as a batsman, we still would have remembered the fielding.

Puts his left glove on better.

When Smith was brought back for the India Test series of 2012-13, he had scored only one firstclass hundred since 2009-10. Yet, he was picked as a No. 5 batsman in a Test team in crisis. Had it not been for Clarke’s back injury, he wouldn’t have been in the squad for the Ashes in England. Had it not been for once of Uncle Boof’s hunches, he probably wouldn’t have played at all.

Smith made first-class hundreds for Australia A against Ireland and for Australia against Sussex. But at Old Trafford, it was another 50 that kept him in the team and made him look, for the first time in his career, completely necessary.

Old Trafford wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t dominant. It wasn’t insane. It was just batting. Smith hardly hit any boundaries. Smith hardly played crazy shots. Smith just accumulated and put Australia into a great position. Until, when on the brink of the 90s, he played a shot that was so silly Geoff Boycott is still mid-rant about it, he looked like a batsman.

They picked him as a junk yard dog. A scrapper. One that hit the ball where others didn’t. That really believed in himself. That ignored his weaknesses and backed himself.

They still had all that, and a batsman.

His work with Trent Woodhill, his personal batting coach, had turned him into a zen batsman. The twitches were still there. Outside off still looked shaky. But he was cool with it. Supercool. Two Tests later at The Oval, he was ready and able to make a Test match hundred.

138. Not out.

That was 485 days ago. The hundreds haven’t stopped since.

Moves his helmet back.

There was so much energy from Smith, the Test captain, on the field at the Gabba. Almost every over he ran down to chat to the bowler. Sometimes he’d chat to the bowler who’d just completed the over, and then run to the bowler who was about to bowl the next one. Not many overs went by without a change in the field. He sought out Haddin. Watson. Rogers. Warner.

At times, the young guy in him escaped; at one point he feigned throwing a ball behind his back at the stumps.

He was also obsessed with watching replays on the big screen. Clearly didn’t want to bowl himself. Tried a funky move with Warner’s slow-medium pacers. Managed not to cry too much as he lost Mitchell Marsh to injury, Mitchell Starc to form and injury, and Josh Hazlewood to cramps.

When Australia finally bowled India out in the first innings, Smith ran up to pat Mitchell Johnson on the back. Johnson didn’t react at first. Then he turned and patted Smith on the back.

Fixes the band on his right glove.

Smith had made a lot of runs in 2009-10 playing Shield cricket, he’d also taken a seven-wicket haul. Then his career had taken him around the world. He’d played for Australia, Kochi Tuskers Kerala, New South Wales, Pune Warriors, Rajasthan Royals, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Sydney Sixers and Worcestershire. He’d played in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, South Africa, England, Zimbabwe, the UAE, Northern Ireland and the West Indies.

From 2010 to 2013, Smith was always playing. Turn your TV on and he’ll be playing somewhere, for someone. A franchise player. A county player. A limited-overs player. He was in demand. He was everywhere. He was in and out of Australian colours.

Smith was the modern player. He learnt the modern way.

Kicks at the dirt.

In 2011-12, Smith captained Sydney Sixers in the absence of Haddin. Sydney Sixers won the Big Bash League. Many were impressed with how well Smith led. It was certainly mentioned by Cricket Australia this week.

The one question all captains get when they take over the new job is how the captaincy will affect their batting. When Smith led the Sydney Sixers he played in nine games. He made 166 runs, with one 50.

But that was that Smith pre-junk yard dog. Pre-zen batsman. Pre-international hundreds.

This time he floated into the Gabba on a hoverboard made of runs. Since The Oval last year, 1129 of them at 66.

Maybe the captaincy can get to people. Perhaps a day in the field when it’s too hot for human exertion and no one can stand up would have upset some people. Or moving up the order for your newest position in the line up would do it.

But if there is something that can affect Smith’s batting at the moment, no cricket team has worked it out. When Australia were struggling, he took to R Ashwin to give them some space. When they were newly six down, he guided the ball over the slips casually. When Johnson almost lost his mind during an over from Varun Aaron, Smith tried to get the strike.

When Aaron sledged Smith, Smith smiled back cheekily. He might be the captain, but he still looks like a kid who has stolen a cookie.

Then he made his sixth Test ton in 488 days. His first as captain. He celebrated like a young boy at first. Then like a wise man afterwards.

Marks his guard endlessly.

At the Barley & Rye across from the Gabba, a Christmas work dinner chats about the horror of the Sydney siege, then moves seamlessly into a chat about cricket. People seem interested in Steven Smith. One guy stated that he had no problem with Smith, but he was just happy the other guy wasn’t playing. “Michael Clarke?” said a workmate.

“Yeah, that guy is a Wayne Kerr, if ya get what I’m sayin'”. From there the chat went to discussing the private life of Kyly Clarke.

Never did cricket skill, or results, come into the conversation.

Smith has moved on from just being a player. He is now one of the most talked about and scrutinised people in Australia. His private life is already more public. His partner is more public. Next will be where he lives, what he drives, how he dresses. Australian captains might be selected for their cricket, but they are judged in the court of public opinion on everything, just like a politician.

Smith is still only the Australian captain elect, but he has already had to talk about a terrorist siege on behalf of his team-mates, and talk about how they are moving on from their personal bereavement. It won’t be long before people start referring to him as a Wayne Kerr and discussing supposed mistakes his partner has made.

It’s the part of captaining the Australian cricket team your fantasies never really cover.

On Channel 9, he was speaking to a former captain, and he said, “I’d just like them to like me for the person I am.”

Shuffles the wristband.

Pad. Pad. Glove. Helmet. Glove. Thigh. Inner thigh. Box. Wristband. Helmet. Pad. Pad. It’s a blur. Maybe 15 adjustments. All quicker than his footwork. Smith moves so fast at times it’s impossible for all, or any, of these things to actually to be bothering him. It’s not about that. It’s a ritual. It’s his cricketing signum crucis.

At one point, within 40 seconds Smith touches his helmet seven different times. He is twitchy and uncomfortable. He looks nervous. He is at the non-striker’s end. He is 121 not out. Australia are quickly erasing the deficit. They are 1-0. India are now feeling the heat. The crowd is cheering.

This is a great moment for him. He is Captain Australia and doing great. He’ll enjoy it, once he’s readjusted his shield.

Monster Johnson goes missing

This season, Mitchell Johnson is not the fearsome fast bowler he was last summer © Getty Images
Last time he was here a No. 8 was feeding time for Monster Johnson.

This time R Ashwin was playing him as if he was just another bowler. A full and straight ball slipped down the leg side. There was no menace. No fear. No explosion. Just a leg bye.

Mitch was mid-pitch, shrugging, looking at his hands, wondering where the magic went.

At the top of his mark, he was sweating so much in his first spell of the day, he had to throw the ball to someone else to shine it.

The next delivery is a half volley, MS Dhoni cover drives it for three. The last ball of his morning spell is pushed through the covers by India’s stylish No. 8, without fear of injury or loss of wicket. Mitch just stares down the pitch for a while, before eventually turning to see where the ball has gone.

Mitch wanders off to fine leg. Warner runs over to tell him where Ashwin is standing in the crease, oblivious to the fact Mitch is going to be taken off. Mitch stands at fine leg, by this point last year, he was winning an Ashes and destroying an era of English cricket.

Now he is sweating uncontrollably, no one is screaming his name, he’s wicketless and fiddling with a bandage around his finger. Around him there are many empty seats.

The Gabba has blue seats, but scattered among them are gold and maroon chairs. It seems like a ploy to trick the mind into thinking there are more people in the ground than there actually are. It also does the opposite. When the Brisbane heat kicks in fully, the ground goes quieter. Vocal chords melt. People disappear to local bars.

Today, they just never seemed to turn up at all. The Gabba can’t intimidate with coloured seats. Seats don’t scream.

Last year as Mitchell Johnson bounced out Trott and KP, it felt like an angry, drunken, rockin’ coliseum from hell. For M Vijay’s boundaries, it was more an amateur Lawn Bowls over-70s event.

There are many differences from this time to last year, but nothing is more noticeable than Mitchell Johnson’s bowling. After one innings. After three. It’s different. This time it is 0 for 81. Last time it was 4 for 61. The time it is 4 for 228. Last time it was 16 for 143. This time it is okay. Last time it was terrifying.

This was the start of Mitchell Johnson’s run of eight Tests for 59 wickets at 15 apiece. Hellfire. Brimstone. Armageddon. Cook. KP. Trott. Smith. Amla. It was one of those amazing stretches of bowling in Test cricket history. It was Syd Barnes’ wickets with Thommo’s pace.

There was no way Johnson could keep that up, especially as not all wickets are Australian and South African. In the UAE, he was okay – six wickets at 29. He was not a fire-breathing dragon from space, just a fast bowler on unresponsive wickets.

Then he came home. Back into the bosom of fast tracks and good times. Adelaide might be known as a bowling graveyard, but not for Mitch. He bowls as well there as anywhere. It might not bounce and have as much movement as the Gabba, bounce as the WACA, or as much of either as the G, but he always finds what he needs there.

Not this time.

Like in the UAE, Mitch was not hopeless, he was just okay. His working over of a well-set Vijay was beautiful. But that was the only time he was that good. That awesome. That monster.

There have been glimpses of aggression from Mitchell Johnson in this series, but it has not been sustained for any period of time © Getty Images
Photo by: Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber/a
This Test he is also without Ryan Harris, as he was in both UAE games. Mitch Johnson does miss Ryan Harris. It’s hard not to, he has gravitational pull. Harris is fast, accurate, cunning and relentless. He’s essentially the human version of the truck from Duel. Bowling at the other end to him must be a dream. Having him at mid-on or off would be like having an on-field bowling coach. In three of Mitch’s last four Tests, there has been no Harris.

In Brisbane, when it got hot and quiet, what would have been better than Harris standing next to Mitch?

A scientific study of Mitch’s bowling speeds show he is down on pace. As scientific as ball speeds can be. Not to a career low, but to a new era Monster Johnson low. Two kilometres lower on average. That’s not a yard of pace, that’s a handful of inches. Maybe those inches of lost pace are that nip people are always talking about. But is 88 mph so different to 89.5?

It would seem like regardless of a fraction of a nip, or Ryan Harris’ injury, there is something else. Last time there was also the build up. It was the Ashes. And the last one hadn’t healed yet. Words were said in the media. The Courier Mail started newspaper bodyline. Mitch was raring to make a comeback. He’d missed a whole Ashes. The Test was all anyone in Brisbane wanted to talk about. He started by smashing runs in it to save Australia. The crowd was practically foaming at the mouth before Trott was out. They were whipped into a carnivorous frenzy.

This time there was a funeral.

It’s been said that deep in the bubble of the Australian Cricket Team no one took the news harder. Then to compound it was the bouncer that struck Virat Kohli on the crest. And maybe it’s too easy to say that it was that that changed Mitch, but no one else in that Test looked as shaken as he did on that walk down to Virat.

When Umesh Yadav was facing Johnson, there was no feeling of impending doom. Like every time a South African or England tailender faced him. In one full over, Mitch bowled one bouncer. Yadav twirled away from it for survival. It wasn’t followed up. There were no leg gullies. No one walked up from slip. The crowd wasn’t getting worked up. Mitch just bowled the last two balls full. One of which Yadav played from near square leg as he assumed he was going to be under attack. He wasn’t.

In this series Mitch has bowled bouncers. But there has been no sustained fire-breathing. The quickest ball in the match was from Umesh Yadav, not to him.

When the new ball was taken yesterday, Mitch took it. He bowled wide down the leg side. Then got his line right. Then got his line wrong, four. Then got his line right. Then got his line wrong, two. Then got his line wrong. Full and wide. The speed gun said 90 mph. Rahane played it like a kid had flicked down a lollipop. It was a long wide half-volley, one of a huge number.

Johnson then turned and walked very slowly back to fine leg. Warner came up to him and gave him a rub on the shoulders. Johnson didn’t even seem to notice. His hips looked sore. He was hot, or cooked.

When he got to fine leg, he had to tape up his own injured fingers. There he stood, wicketless. This time Mitch was the one putting on bandages. Last time it was the others.

Tagged ,

The perfect Test

A happy birthday balloon was floating at the front of Adelaide Oval on day one. It’s the ground’s 130th Test birthday. It wasn’t for that.

The balloon was for the birthday that Phillip Hughes never had. It floated above the spontaneous fan tribute to Hughes. Cricket’s spirit proudly on display.

Underneath it was a Christmas tree. Radios. Beer. Sunglasses. Illustrations. Headbands. Flowers. A toy cow. And cricket gear. So much cricket gear. Bats with rosary beads. Tear stained balls. Kids’ bats. Signed gloves. Well-used bats. Pads with stories. Illustrated bats. Bats. Bats. Bats. All put out.

Team hats from clubs all around Australia are there. One from Orange. Another from the Bowen Barracudas. And the Brothers Cricket Club. There is also one from Merlynston Hadfield Cricket Club. Probably one of the hardest cricket clubs in Melbourne. It was a club famous for men, and boys, who batted without gloves. Their home ground seemed more frightening that the cemetery next door. One of them donated his bat to this. Even the hard men are crying.

Then there is a helmet. It’s hard not to think it should be on someone’s head instead of sitting in this tribute. On the peak is a photo of Phillip Hughes.

The condolence book is full. “Bat on forever”. “We love you mate”. “Hope you’re smashing them in heaven”. It has far too many RIPs written in kids’ handwriting.

A fan walks past, takes a quick look and says it’s “too morbid”. Hughes’ promotional photo smiles back at him from the wall.

Cricket Australia tried to find the balance between being respectful and over the top in their tribute. They had his Test number 408 written on the field, and on the shirts. The players wore special armbands with PH on them. They made Hughes 13th man; since the Lord’s Test, Hughes had often been the 13th man. Now there was no other choice.

The players stood to pay their respects. Players from both sides look to the sky. Some look upset. Virat Kohli looks as he often does. It might have been a moving moment, but Kohli was focused on something else. That first Test as captain. And when Kohli is focused, there is little that can change that.

The ground is filled with the voice of Richie Benaud. You don’t often hear Richie at the ground. So from the speakers he sounds like the voice of the cricket God. But it was a broken Richie, older and upset, sounding like he never had before. It was a relief when he finished, the sadness from every word was unbearable. And what followed was 63 seconds of applause.

The fans had turned up early, very early. They were eager to pay their respects. To see what would happen next. To help cricket heal. Strangely for Adelaide, most of them didn’t head out the back of the members’ to drink. They watched the cricket. Cricket Australia and the crowd had played their part, but in truth, the game now needed to start healing itself. New Zealand and Pakistan had helped, but it was too removed from the moment. This was right in Hughes’ new hometown. On his pitch. A Test he could have played in.

The Varun Aaron bouncer to David Warner came in the fourth over. It felt like much longer. Every single ball seemed to build the pressure. Waiting, wondering, hoping it would be okay. Praying that one freak accident wouldn’t attract another. Wanting the cricket to be nicer, but still the same. Varun didn’t make them wait long for the healing. He cleared the air as he whizzed past Warner’s ear. It made cricket feel a bit normal.

Once Varun had assured us that cricket was still what we remembered, we then had something not normal. A live cricket memorial. It was touching, amazing and seemingly never-ending. Warner remembered Hughes on 50, 63 and 100. Michael Clarke did it on 37, but hit a boundary to skip 63. Steven Smith did it on 50, 63 and 100 as well. Ryan Harris, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle all did so when taking their wickets.

There was looking at the sky. Raising the bat at the sky. Standing by the number. They pointed at the number. Touching the arm band. Patting the 408 on the heart. Raising the ball to the sky. Kissing the armband.

Black armbands have been too prevalent in recent cricket history. They were worn after terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan team. And when Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wanted to protest their government’s regime. These were for the victims of fascism and terrorism. The ones in Hughes’ honour were for a victim of cricket.

The crowd cheered when the total went to 408 as well. It was as if the 63 seconds of applause from day one would never end.

Then a noise. Hearts skipped. Some players heard the same same sound they had at 2:23pm, 25 November on the SCG. The crowd went silent. Johnson wore panic on his face. The Australians rushed at Kohli, not as a predators, but as comforters.

All cricket fans marvelled at this new Australia. Maybe cricket had been changed by the Hughes incident. Maybe it was just a bit nicer. More one family than war by other means.

Like Aaron, Virat just got on with the cricket. It’s not a surprise. Virat’s father died during a Ranji trophy match in Virat’s first season. Virat was the not-out batsman overnight when his father passed. Virat still batted the next day. He made 90.

The Indians may have been fumbling, dropping and missing balls in the field. Their bowlers may have had trouble with line and or length. They might have bowled around the wicket, roughing up the pitch for offspinners, despite not having one. Their batsmen might have given away starts. But they were playing cricket.

Virat was playing something else. Something special. He hit a cover drive that should be put in the Louvre. Off his pads he was virtuoso Virat. When they went short, he handled it. When they went full he punished it. He was all business in one of the most personal Tests ever played.

At 100, there were no gestures for Hughes. He was full of fire and brimstone. He swung his bat around like an axe. He was inspiring his team; threatening his team. Showing them what passion really is. This Test meant a lot to so any people, but regardless of Hughes, it meant just as much to Kohli. He pointed to his damaged badge like a warrior who had conquered an army.

Clarke also did no special gesture for his hundred. He could barely lift his bat. Clarke was overcoming his back, his hamstring and his heart. His innings was full of the sort of determination the Australian public had once accused him of not having. He was the first Australian batsman to make a hundred after being retired hurt. And probably the first to give a eulogy of a team-mate before making a Test hundred.

Two giants of the game, moving us forward in different ways.

On the rare occasions when there were no moments to applaud at the ground, they found them in the Shield games. Ed Cowan made two emotional hundreds in Hobart.

The SCG had something even more remarkable. There is no way we can ever really work out what Sean Abbott is going through. Hughes is on every TV, newspaper, magazine, radio show and website in Australia. There is no way Abbott can exist in this country right now without being reminded of it. Even Elton John gave a shout out to Hughes and Abbott during a set. This is a huge thing for a 22-year-old.

Other players who didn’t even deliver the ball had to miss their Shield games this week as they were too upset. Abbott played. Maybe he just had to. Grief doesn’t come with a strict set of guidelines, you just get through it. Abbott bowled through his. In his first over Abbott had bowled a bouncer, later he took wickets. Everyone was pleased for him, pleased for cricket.

That seemed like nothing when he ran into bowl on the second innings against Queensland. This magical collection of six deliveries. A short wide one. A couple that kept low. A ripper outside off. A quick yorker. And the brute. It jumped up into the glove that was moving into a defensive position towards the throat before ending in slip’s hand. Every single delivery seemed to be a gift from cricket. Unless you were the batsmen who faced them.

When Abbott’s figures hit the big screen, the crowd applauded. So did Warner. So did cricket.

Bouncers were okay. Hits were okay. Abbott was okay. Cricket was okay.

The whole thing was nice. Indian reporters and fans were shocked that this was the Australia who had spent years bullying and sledging their players, who now openly wept, cared for the opposition’s safety and stopped to celebrate a mate so often. Cricket’s new world was friendly and nice.

The amnesty lasted ten sessions. During the second session of the fourth day, the birthday balloon for Hughes finally hit the ground. In a perfect world, it might have floated there forever. Cricket’s world has never been perfect.

On the field, Kohli brought cricket back down to earth. Kohli’s decision to send off Chris Rogers was aggressive, unfriendly and kind of bizarre. Australia were setting a total, they were in front, it’s Chris Rogers and he swept a ball to a fielder. It’s like sending off your uncle in a backyard game. Why you would walk beside Rogers doing an angry chicken dance send off is anyone’s guess.

By contrast, the Aaron send off was actually pretty tame. He yelled “come on” in the general direction of David Warner. Some thought Kohli might have done the same thing. But if both players started it, Warner took it to a whole new level. When the no-ball was brought to his attention. He didn’t walk back to the striker’s end. He went to the non-striker’s end to shout “come on” at Aaron three times. He then aggressively left the next ball, and did it again.

It was in no way like the man who cried into his captain’s shoulder in day one.

Shikhar Dhawan walked in as the third man to try and make it worse. He did. Kohli then tried to play peacemaker, which no one looked comfortable with.

Michael Clarke said “there’s a chance I might never play again”. Virat Kohli said he was “getting to terms to how life goes on every single day”. Cricket and life will continue to go on © Getty Images
Later, Warner and Kohli ended up next to each other as Smith and Cheteshwar Pujara were also involved. It was ugly. It was aggressive. It was also cricket. The two teams weren’t playing a memorial game in Hughes’ honour, they were playing a Test in his honour. Tough. Ugly. And not always right.

The umpires kept that up on day five. DRS doesn’t like it when we ignore it. It pokes its head in any way it can. It’s cricket’s third rail. You can’t touch DRS without losing friends and feeling dirty. Was Dhawan’s decision a howler? Would DRS change the Test? Would it have stopped Nathan Lyon from appealing so strenuously that it seemed like he might combust?

Lyon was more throbbing vein than human by the end.

His career is quite Hughes-like. Lyon knows what it is like to be praised and pariahed. Big at the beginning. Mocked and overlooked later on. He was dropped for random spinners who struggle to take 12 wickets in a season. And he was even dropped after his previous best performance. He was coming off a series where the fans gave up on him. He was playing the best players of spin, on their favoured Australian pitch. In the first innings he was attacked, he was unlucky. In the second conquered the last-day demons. He conquered the Indians. But he couldn’t move Marais Erasmus.

Solid and unmoving. There was no romanticism or hometown bias. Erasmus wasn’t umpiring for Hughes’ memory or some perfectly scripted ending. He simply believed that every single ball was missing the top of the bails. He was made into the villain, but even he couldn’t be blamed when Clarke’s body finally gave up.

Australia had lost a mate. Their captain was in hospital. Even technology was against them.

But it was Kohli between them and happiness.

Kohli was dogmatic. Kohli was dominant. Kohli was floating above the crease like a supernatural being. It would be an understatement to just call it batting. Mitchell Johnson broke an entire team here last year. In the space of two balls, Kohli had smashed him, smiled at him, and then laughed as he bowled a wide.

There are some innings that look like they can’t be ended. Kohli’s looked like he refused to believe there was an ending. When you bat like this, when you lead like this, when you believe like this, it should end with you being carried on the shoulders of your team-mates.

Kohli should have been brought down by a ball of the century. The world’s best-ever run-out. A catch of the pure athleticism. Something fitting of the innings. The class. The grit. The specialness.

Kohli’s innings should have been brought down by greatness. It should have. It wasn’t.

The ball was short. Really short. It should have been a drifting ripper that sliced through the gate. It should have. It wasn’t. It was so short Lyon would have been disgusted with his effort. The ball should have been heaved into the Mark Ricciuto stand. It should have been annihilated by Kohli’s mere existence. It should have. It wasn’t.

It clanged against his bat like a shopping trolley hitting a car. It floated out accidentally towards Mitchell Marsh. It should have been taken quite easily. It should have. It wasn’t. Marsh went the wrong way. Then his hands went the wrong way. And in the end he fell to ground like a toppled animal and caught it like it was his first ever catch.

Kohli bent over at the waist. He never left the crease. He clutched at the blade of his bat. In both innings he had been king of the crease. Now he was trapped there by disappointment. And he couldn’t even hold the bat properly.

His grief was like no one else’s in the whole Test. It was purely for the win. Not for a friend. Not for a cricketer. But he had taken his side within sight of a great away win in one of the greatest Tests. And then he’d made one mistake. He stayed there for such a long time, it looked like he might never leave that crease.

It was utter devastation. But finally, for the first time in a few weeks, devastation of the right kind. A captain losing the match with one mistake. A poorly executed shot. A cricket tragedy. Not a tragedy.

When the Australians took the last wicket they followed Brad Haddin who ran manically across the field. The ended up next to the 408. There had been many tributes that had obviously been thought about by the players involved. This seemed accidental. This seemed unplanned. This was a perfect cricket moment. The perfect Test. The perfect celebration.

After play, a band out the back of the members’ played Throw Your Arms Around Me by the Hunters and Collectors. They played it really loud; you could hear it float out over the outfield.

I will squeeze the life out of you
You will make me laugh and make me cry
We will never forget it
You will make me call your name and I’ll shout it to the blue summer sky
We may never meet again
So shed your skin and lets get started
And you will throw your arms around me

Michael Clarke said “there’s a chance I might never play again”. Virat Kohli said he was “getting to terms to how life goes on every single day”. Cricket and life will continue to go on. This time Test cricket dug in and got through to tea.

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