The 36th over of day one of the fourth Test in Brisbane was a microcosm of India’s heroic and possibly doomed attempt to take home the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Spindly seamer Navdeep Saini was the bowler. It was his sixth day as a Test cricketer.
Thanks to an excruciating process of deduction, that made him the deputy leader of India’s attack — five bowlers with four Test appearances between them, toiling away on a flat, hard surface that has been a burial ground for even seasoned international bowlers. Of course, India had earlier lost the toss again.
All morning the patchwork combination applied themselves diligently, bowling fuller than their predecessors in this series, sticking to a plan that meant they were frequently driven for ego-bruising straight boundaries.
Yet it also reaped rewards. David Warner nicked off in the first over of the day. Marcus Harris gave catching practice.
By the 36th over, one of the debutants, off-spinning all-rounder Washington Sundar, had removed Steve Smith, Australia’s batting phenomenon.
Now Saini worked away at Smith’s right-hand man, Marnus Labuschagne, slightly back of a length, off stump line, squaring the Queenslander up and drawing the thick edge towards the safe hands of Ajinkya Rahane at gully.
Of course, the catch went down.
India has done it all summer. Australia too, but in anomalous clumps, not day in, day out. Labuschagne alone has had more lives than Sylvester the Cat.
This time the opportunity was dead simple, its spillage inexplicable. Saini fell to the turf and writhed in agony. In the process of delivering the ball he’d injured his groin. Because, well, of course.
Australia should have been 4-93 at that point, batting first on its multi-generational stomping ground against cricket’s ship of Theseus — just two core components from Adelaide and nine replacement parts.
Saini returned to the arena soon enough, but you half-expected him to trip head-first into the gate or be struck by a lone bolt of lightning out of clear blue sky. Indeed, it took neither that nor a single further delivery and he was back off the ground anyway.
For a while, India sagged ever so slightly, and you expected them to buckle and break.
A few hours after his reprieve, Labuschagne drove Mohammed Siraj through cover to bring up his century from 195 deliveries. His partnership with Matthew Wade stretched into triple figures. Here was the flat track, here were the bullies.
Then Wade again lost his head before reaching 50, undoing a lot of hot, sweaty work with the sort of agricultural hack-pull that sticks in the minds of even his supporters.
Again, it went further up than away. Again, he was caught. And again, it sparked a mini crisis; Labuschagne departed in a similar manner only two overs later.
Thus Australia was five down for not nearly enough, and the team that cannot be killed was still breathing down its neck.
Shane Warne muttered: “It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?” And for once, it was. How had they done it?
In short, only Labuschagne had done what the other batsmen should have: cashing in against a depleted attack.
The appeal of Labuschagne is also his drawback: when he is on song, which is now more often than not, he bats as though bowlers are not entitled to his wicket. He has access to all the gears required to combat Test cricket’s fluctuating moods. He has the stamina to counter harsh conditions — 32 degrees doesn’t sound hot, but the humidity in Brisbane was energy-sapping, especially so soon after the exhausting finish at Sydney.
When he has more restraint, he will challenge Smith’s position as top dog.
But the rest? Maybe what follows will make a moot point of it, but there were more signs that all is not-quite-right with this Australian line-up, both in its construction and philosophy. It is hard to think of another combination of recent decades, for instance, who would have let as modest a spinner of the ball as Sundar settle into his groove the way he did today.
Perhaps a shock loss here, unlikely as it remains, would be of greater benefit to the home side than the complacency that might accompany a win.
Credit must also be applied where it’s due. That Australia dropped its bundle earlier in the week, and finds it so compromised again, is due as much to India’s strength of character as Australia’s weaknesses.
On Friday, Siraj’s three Tests made him the attack leader, a mantle he took on with pride. There was a period shortly after lunch in which he’d bowled one-third of India’s overs for the day, an unsustainable level of output for an old-ball specialist but an effort that showed his willingness to put the team first.
He was seen marshalling the debutants. He delivered the final delivery of the day, a fast bouncer that sailed well over Tim Paine’s head but also made a statement: I won’t fade away.
If not unicorns, Indian fast bowlers who can re-shape Tests in Australia have been atypical. This summer we have seen two — Jasprit Bumrah and Siraj — and they have elevated the contest to something special. It has also inspired the next in line.
T Natarajan and Shardul Thakur are net bowlers by comparison, but that is also the point: last in line, at the end of an arduous tour, they took key wickets on Friday and showed this Indian squad has seemingly endless reserves of perseverance.
And it can only be such intangible qualities keeping India in this match. In the 80th over, as shadows crept across the pitch, Cameron Green bunted a regulation caught-and-bowled chance to Shardul.
He dropped it, of course. Consistency can have its drawbacks, too.