There has been no shortage of heroes among the 20 players who have taken the field for India over the four Tests amid a football season’s worth of broken bones and strained tendons.
The latest are 21-year-old debutant Washington Sundar and second-gamer Shardul Thakur, who were brought in from deep in the bullpen as bowling reinforcements in Brisbane yet blunted Paine’s men with the bat before a crowd of 12,777 on Sunday.
India were in danger of being busted open by Australia, having slumped to 6-186 soon after lunch with the loss of Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Mayank Agarwal and Rishabh Pant. Instead, Australia were thwarted by a 123-run partnership between Sundar (62), who had to borrow gear including a bat from Pant, and Thakur, who in yet another example of courage under fire made most of his 67 after his index finger was stung facing Josh Hazlewood.
The outstanding NSW paceman wound up with 5-57 but the Indian counterattack led them to an unlikely first-innings total of 336, only 33 short of Australia’s.
Australia extended the lead to 54 after a sore David Warner put the foot down immediately as he and Marcus Harris batted for 20 minutes on Sunday night.
With rain forecast for Monday and Tuesday, though, they will have to force the issue, a ploy that may give India a chance to not only save the Test and series but win them if it doesn’t go to plan.
Australia couldn’t bowl India out in the last four sessions in Sydney and with the series on the line Paine will be left with the delicate task of getting the timing of a declaration right on the penultimate day in Brisbane, where they haven’t lost since 1988.
“If Davey bats a long time I think things happen pretty quickly as we know,” Hazlewood said.
“But I think [the declaration time] will be pretty similar to Sydney … [leaving] three, three-and-a-half sessions, maybe four sessions. It all depends on the weather as well. We’ll just bat normal for the first two sessions tomorrow and see where we’re at.”
Whatever the outcome, the never-say-die attitude of Australia’s adversary since Boxing Day shapes as the most significant takeaway from this summer.
Not only were India without Kohli for all but the first Test, they have suffered so many injuries they had had to cycle through 10 specialist bowlers since the first day in Adelaide on December 17.
Australia, by comparison, have used just their usual frontline four throughout the series.
As a group that quartet can hardly be fingered for Australia’s shortcomings this summer even if Nathan Lyon, still stranded three short of 400 Test wickets, and Mitchell Starc haven’t had the impact they would have liked. Paine’s team has been let down more generally by its batting.
But as superbly as Pat Cummins and Hazlewood have performed, the demands on the pace trio looked to be taking their toll on Sunday.
Australia hadn’t counted on being stuck in the field all day last Monday as India held on for a draw in Sydney. Instead, Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc sent down a combined 74 overs in the last innings at the SCG and then had only three days to recover for the Gabba.
The by-product of India’s revolving door of bowlers, meanwhile, is that as inexperienced as the replacements have been, they have at least come in fresh.
The newcomers have been as tough as any of their teammates, too. Thakur and Sundar had already made their mark with three wickets apiece in Australia’s first innings but their rearguard action with the bat was series shifting.
Warner, still carrying a groin injury that led him to miss the first two Tests, later grimaced after diving for a single to start his team’s second innings. But he picked himself up to hit three fours in a row and make all but one of Australia’s runs as they ended 0-21.
Chris Barrett is Chief Sports Reporter of The Sydney Morning Herald.