Stand-ins Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar stand out, add twist to fairy tale

Don’t lie now. You have had these daydreams when that chemistry textbook was making no sense to your tired eyes. You happen to be at a match where the Indian team has catastrophically lost many of its players to injury and illness, and you somehow end up at short leg. You wear blows, take an incredible catch in the dying moments to win India the game and they ask you to train with them and you impress them as a cricketer and play in the final Test of the series. Whether it ends up in a long career or just this one fairy-tale Test depends on the kind of person you are. Or when your mum says dinner is ready.

Or, if you are a better cricketer and less of a dreamer – but a dreamer still – you are a nets bowler to help out the Indian team at an international match in your hometown. You impress one of the assistant coaches, who asks the captain to take a closer look at you, and they find a skill in you that everyone has overlooked so far and take you straight into the first XI.

So crazy has this series been that none of that would have been out of place. What we have in real life is not a million miles away from it either.

Shardul Thakur goes after the bowler Getty Images and Cricket Australia

Washington Sundar last played first-class cricket more than three years ago. He is known more for his TNPL and IPL exploits. You wouldn’t blink if he never played first-class cricket again and went on to enjoy a long career as a limited-overs specialist. Only because of the Covid-19 pandemic was Sundar asked to hang around for the Test series to help with bowling in the nets.

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Two days before the final Test in Brisbane, he was told that India might have run out of suitable options for what they wanted to achieve in the game. Three days into the Test, he has not only taken three wickets with his limited but disciplined offspin bowling, but also nearly top-scored for India in a match where their aim has been to hang on for dear life, take the draw and, along with it, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy home.

A near fantasy is how we see it, but not Sundar. He is a bit of a prodigy. He is only 21, has already handcuffed some of the biggest power-hitters bowling with the new ball inside the powerplay in the IPL and has a first-class century opening the innings. In another era, perhaps you might have heard more of him as a first-class player, but this is an era where he first made his name in the leagues, concentrated on them and also ended up travelling with the Indian teams without playing in the XI, thus missing out on a lot of first-class cricket.

Slightly less wild is the story of Shardul Thakur. He is India’s seventh-choice seamer in Tests. He spent the long tour playing just three limited-overs games and bowling a lot in the nets, getting to bat only when the throwdown specialists or the bowlers have any energy left after bowling to the players expected to play.

“These are the moments we wait and live for [as to] when we will get the opportunity and contribute for the team,” Thakur said after top-scoring for India in only his second Test. “This time also – in my mind and in my heart – I was only thinking that the longer I bat, the smaller their lead will be. Just wanted to spend time on the pitch.

“It is a long tour and as a player, it is always challenging to stay motivated. But this was the last game with the series tied. So you don’t need extra motivation. Just look at the scoreline, go out and give your 100% to the team. Make sure you are making all the useful contributions.”

Thakur is the embodiment of the “honest trier”, but his ambition is higher than that. He puts himself out there. Even in limited-overs cricket, he is frequently asked to bowl the difficult overs. In this Test, he kept looking to swing it and pitch it up even when he was getting driven. With the bat, he hooked Pat Cummins for a six, cover-drove Mitchell Starc for a four off the back foot – call him ‘Shardulkar’ if you will – and emulated a more recent Mumbai team-mate by clearing long-on off Nathan Lyon.

The two men staying together for 36 overs might have outlandish and unbelievable stories but as is the case in Test cricket, it involved common sense too. Before they came out to bat, Thakur and Sundar must have seen Cameron Green introduced as early as the 12th over. They must have observed the shortening lengths of spells for Cummins and Hazlewood. They must have known Australia had played the whole series with the same set of four frontline bowlers. They decided if they could hang in for an hour, they could break them down.

“We knew their bowlers were tiring,” Thakur said. “We knew if we hung in for one hour we would be on top. It was really important for us to hang in there. If someone lost his focus and tried a rash stroke, we would let him know and get them back to basics.”

They were proven right when Cummins and Hazlewood bowled just seven overs between them with the new ball. Australia had been pushed this far by the collective effort of India’s batting, but they needed fit and able bodies to take advantage. Thakur and Sundar decided they would give themselves the best chance to do so.

Now with the forecast for the remaining two days not looking great, India have one hand on the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and one foot in the World Test Championship final. Neither of this duo might be there, but if India do get there, their contribution will not be forgotten.