The ball was veering onto his body. Pat Cummins shuffled across and paused and opened the face of his bat to guide it to square third man. The ball was trickling to the fence, the outfield made heavy by the rain. Zak Crawley was galloping from his fielding station to stop the ball. But in the middle, Cummins and Nathan Lyon were running for their lives, one eye on the ball, one ear on their partner’s call, the mind but a scrambled blur of thoughts.
Their lungs burst when a misfield allowed the ball to cross the boundary rope, wrapping up a two-wicket win in the crimson twilight of Edgbaston, to conclude a match of epic stature, one that was subject to wicked twists and turns, till the match could no longer twist and turn. Cummins, who scored the most precious 44 runs of his career and stitched a match-winning 55-run stand with Lyon, threw his helmet into the distance; Lyon climbed on his captain. Cummins ran in circles, flexed his biceps and smiled as broad as he could. In the glassed dressing room, their teammates went berserk, before they ran onto the field, past scattered and devastated England counterparts. Some stopped and commiserated, but when the euphoria and devastation sank in, they would reflect on a truly ageless classic.
But how did it get this far! When Joe Root clung onto a return catch from Alex Carey — he had spilled a couple earlier —the match seemed to drift beyond Australia’s grasp. A few overs ago, Ben Stokes had consumed Usman Khawaja to lift England’s hopes of a straightforward victory.
When Lyon united with Cummins, their team was still 54 runs away from victory. England celebrated the fall of Carey as though they had won the match. They surely were on match point. Or was it Ashes Edgbaston Part 2? The narrative unfolded in an eerily similar way.
But Cummins and Lyon are made of steelier and sterner stuff to give up the game. Adversity has often channelled the best out of them. Cummins, whose batting is often understated, decided to counterpunch. He has the requisites of a competent lower-order batsman, a robust technique, ability to swing those arms down the ground, and beyond all these physical attributes, a serenity, a perspective about him. He thundered Root for a pair of sixes in the space of three balls. These two shots tore through the morale of England’s cricketers.
The long overdue new ball was flung to Stuart Broad. But Cummins flayed him in front of square. In Broad’s next over, Lyon laced a glorious four down the ground. As the pair whittled down the target, England’s nerves clutched and tightened. A mid-pitch discussion broke after every ball. Cummins and Lyon would just nod and flick a thumbs up. Sometimes with a grin, often with an assuringly sober face. England would try everything they could to force another twist — short-ball therapy, yorker barrage. But Cummins and Lyon weathered the storm phlegmatically.
The what ifs would hurt and haunt England. What if Root had clung onto Cummins’ catch when he was on seven? What if Stokes had clung onto a Lyon skier when he was on one? Did England take the new ball a bit too late? Should they have taken it at all? There was ample purchase for Root’s off-breaks. The hard new ball travelled faster to the rope. Besides, there was little assistance for the seamers with the new ball. And the biggest debate of them all — did England blunder when declaring on 393/8 on the first evening? Was it daring or arrogance? Did they recklessly throw their wickets away in the second innings? Did they make a mistake in not hurling the new ball to James Anderson? He had looked gingery throughout the game, but Anderson is Anderson.
Therein lies the enduring charm of an epic Test match — the what ifs and what nots that would stamp themselves to the mind of the audience, lurk as invisible notes in the scorecards. It’s a Test that would be told and retold several times in different parts of the world.
But such twists and turns did not seem to arrive at half time.
The teams parted for tea after two hours of slow see-sawing, the game still not tipping to either side. Both sides could perceive the scenario as a glass half-full or half-empty. England heckled only a pair of wickets, one of them night- watchman Scott Boland for a frustrating 20 and the other a flaky Travis Head. But England, sticking to diligent lengths and sometimes left-of-left-field field settings, had a noose on the scoring for most of the time. In 29 overs, Australia mustered only 76 runs, a crawl by England’s new dizzying standards. But the pace of scoring hardly bothered the visitors. Not for them the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses temptation. They would grit, graft and grind the old-fashioned way, a no-nonsense, no-frills approach, that fidgeted rather than thrilled.
Typically, Khawaja embodied their approach, batting as if in an invisible astronaut’s helmet, pressure- and temptation-proof. He hit just one four, courtesy a Moeen Ali full toss. Then, Australia themselves fetched just five fours in a session that seemed an antithesis to England’s brave new leitmotif. Singles and twos, not the stolen types but straightforward ones, kept the scoreboard ticking along. Apart from a stray instance of Head backing away to Stuart Broad and trying to sledgehammer him through cover, Australia’s batsmen exhibited hardly any portent of counterpunching. Head’s 24-ball 16 was the only phase in the game where excitement brimmed. He slashed, slapped and swished before Moeen Ali snaffled him with a ripping off-break.
Ali, inhibited by his battered fingers, would soon lose his control and was replaced with Root’s part-time all-sorts. Ali was sorely missed on a deck that conspired with the spinners, against a left-hand-heavy batting firm.
There was precious little assistance for the seamers on a surface slower than Bengaluru traffic, apart from the cloud cover upon resumption, which soon disappeared. Once the conventional tricks proved ineffective, England resorted to cross-seam deliveries and back-of-the hand knuckle balls, but without reward, as Khawaja and Cameron Green knuckled down.
The kiss of life for England arrived in fifth over of the final session, when Green hacked an Ollie Robinson in-ducker to the base of his off-stump, thus ending a 49-run alliance that seemed to steer Australia closer to the shores of victory. An unusual stroke of indecisiveness seized Green, who was hitherto clear-headed. Maybe, he was readying to wear a bouncer after Robinson had deputed a fielder at deep square-leg. He hung on his back-foot, shuffled across, and looked to dab to third-man, but was suffocated for room.
The moment was ripe to ratchet up the aggression. Robinson, as he had all through the day, was all fire and brimstone. He did not strain the speed-gun but in-your-face machismo rattled Australia for the first time in the day. At the other end, Root spat one past Khawaja’s defensive thrust and maintained the pressure. Just three runs were accrued in the next four overs. Tension brimmed over. Jonny Bairstow amped up his chirp behind the stumps. The close-in field cordon swooped in like vultures over their prey. A momentum shift was perceptible. After adding 17 more, Australia lost Khawaja and then Carey. But in the end, the purpose of the collapse was to make Cummins and Lyon heroes. Timeless Ashes heroes.