Occasionally, it isn’t a matter of hyperbole to talk about something in terms of the best or worst ever. This is one such case.
No Australian Test series ever had a worse lead-up than late 2014 against India. Phillip Hughes died on November 27, struck by the ball while batting for South Australia against New South Wales. The whole thing seemed impossible. The circumstances were so innocuous: a state game, like so many hundreds before it. A short ball and a pull shot, like so many thousands.
And it was so unfair. He was young and brilliant. He was batting for a recall to the Test team. He would have got it, too, having already reached a half-century unbeaten at a time when Michael Clarke’s back and hamstrings were playing a symphony of discontent. The Test captain was singing a similar tune to the selectors who were preparing to leave him out.
But then the unthinkable had to be thought, and the Brisbane Test that Hughes would have played became an Adelaide Test because of the delay for his funeral. Instead of travelling to southern Queensland, Australia’s cricketers travelled to Macksville on the northern New South Wales coast, deep in banana country where the kid prodigy had grown up and pillaged regional bowlers who universally swore he would crack the big time.
His mourners suffered through formal wear in the northern heat and cried with arms round each other. A shattered Clarke etched his eulogy in the memories of those who heard it. Then he had to pull himself and his body and his team together for a match with a week to spare.
In some ways, it seemed the best thing to do. The mourning was so widespread because Hughes was a cricketer. Cricket would give that mourning context and a physical focus.
In part, it still feels wrong to celebrate that week, but the match was a fitting tribute.
“We must play on,” Clarke had said on the funeral dais.
But on the other hand, a game seemed irrelevant. How could Australian players focus on the contest? How could Indian players know what to do, having suddenly found themselves awkward guests at the most unexpected event?
Well – just play. And so the Adelaide Oval in 2014 saw one of the great Tests, one to match even the most remarkable chapters written at that ground. A spectacle whose standard of play has gone somewhat unnoticed due to its extraordinary context. In part, it still feels wrong to celebrate that week, but the match was a fitting tribute.
A batting duel with one extraordinary bowling intervention. A game where Australia declared twice and almost lost, only to snatch back a win, gambling all to avoid a draw. A match where Clarke, Steve Smith, David Warner, Nathan Lyon and Mitchell Marsh had moments of immensity, only for Virat Kohli to so nearly overturn them all.
A match where a batsman on each side made twin centuries for only the third time in history. And how right that was, given the defining moment of Hughes’ short career will always be his twin hundreds in Durban as a teenager, the youngest player ever to record the feat.
His send-off match offered perfect symmetry, a scorecard guard of honour.
David Warner was a wreck. He had loved Hughes as much as anyone, having grown up with him through New South Wales age-group teams, then into the senior state side, and through into the Test arena. They were both attacking and idiosyncratic left-handers, in contrasting styles.
In their youth, Warner bombed across the line and Hughes carved through backward point; Warner was the cannon and Hughes the cutlass. But they were criticised and doubted the same way for their cricketing approaches, despite both having prodigious records that suggested they would make it at the top.
By the end of 2014, Warner had put together a string of Test hundreds to prove exactly that. Then he had seen Hughes be forever denied that chance. Warner had been playing in that game, standing metres away on the field when the accident happened. Among the saddest images in those long few days was of Warner sitting on the motorised medical cart as it left the SCG, holding his friend stable on a stretcher in an attempt to do anything to help.
Leading up to the Test, Warner couldn’t train. Whether it was residual fear or being overcome with emotion, he couldn’t bring himself to face fast bowling.
“The first net session, I walked out of. I was nowhere,” he said later. “I went out and bowled to the guys. I felt like I had to do something and I didn’t just want to linger around and soak in the emotions. I went and faced the net bowlers the next day: I think I lasted two or three balls.”
Support staff were preparing to pull him out of the match. But he couldn’t bear not to play.
The toss saw him walk out to bat immediately. Perhaps that was for the best. The sky was clear blue, and despite the last-minute changes to the summer schedule, 25,000 people came down to the Adelaide Oval. But it remained quiet, church-like.
Chris Rogers carefully faced out the first over for a bunted couple of runs. Warner started the second over. He had barely faced a ball in a fortnight. He smashed his first for four.
Then the same for his fourth. And his sixth. He was facing Varun Aaron, India’s fastest bowler in a good couple of decades. It didn’t matter. The next over, Warner took three more boundaries off Mohammed Shami. All of them went through cover or point. All had a purity of sound off the bat, that sweetness of clean contact. They split gaps with the precision of set-square and ruler, carving the wagon-wheel into wedges.
There had been anxiety over whether the Australians would fall apart; in the space of minutes, Warner had taken control. He began the fourth over with another boundary and a brace. He had 34 runs from 16 balls.
It was audacious and unplanned.
“The initial part before the game started, my emotions took over,” he said later. “It showed the adrenalin was pumping and I slowly gained back that momentum and pulled it in a little bit to survive and be out there. I wanted to see lunch out as well.”
Pulling it back was exactly what he did, nudging the ball around for the next ten overs. But when Aaron dropped short with Warner on 45, he smacked another three boundaries in five balls.
He had his fifty off 45 deliveries, then had to negotiate 63 not out, the score where Hughes’ final innings had ended. The symbolism was important, and Warner reached the mark deliberately by bunting a full toss from Indian wrist-spinner Karn Sharma away for two runs rather than whacking it for four. The ovation round the ground was warm and sincere, and the batsman had to heave in some deep breaths while looking to the sky.
“Michael [Clarke] asked me if I was okay,” he said. “And I wasn’t, and I had to step away just to get my thoughts and my process back again.”
But he found his way back into the groove. A century off 106 balls, then surging beyond. In the sky, bands of high white cloud glowed with a strange light. Warner kept on punishing the spinners. Eventually, on 145, he targeted Karn for a clout over midwicket that didn’t come off.
“The demons inside me probably got me out. I tried to take him over the top and I hadn’t done so all day.”
It didn’t matter. He’d absorbed the emotional intensity of that day, and created a place for Australian cricketers and all who follow the sport to direct their attention, their energy, their grief. Symbols do matter at times like this, and Warner had created one. He’d made that fraught day possible.
From there, it was possible for his teammates. When Smith resumed next morning, the injured Clarke walked out to bat with him. Clarke was physically crocked, but the delayed match had given him a few more days to get his body together.
As someone so close to Hughes, and the public face of mourning him, there was no way Clarke wasn’t going to play, even if they had to wheel him to the middle on a drinks trolley.
His back had given out on the first day with his score on 60, forcing him to retire hurt, but a wicket from the last ball of the day and a night of medical treatment meant that he could resume the next morning.
Smith reached his century the first ball after a rain delay, walking over to where Hughes’ Australian cap number of 408 was painted in huge numerals on the turf, then saluting the sky from there.
Clarke was in agony, tested out by India with the short ball, but managed to sway and slash and prod balls through the cordon or to fine leg. Just after another rain break, he collected a single for his own hundred.
So all three New South Welshmen, each of Hughes’ batting teammates from his original state team, made the landmark. Smith started forehanding down the ground, making the bowlers dodge. Clarke kept stabbing and weaving. He looked exhausted and relieved when his sweep shot was finally held for 128, and when rain came moments later at the end of the second day, he declared with Smith on 162.
The score was 517 for 7, and India did well not to be blown away the next day.
All the top seven made useful runs, with three fifties built around Kohli’s centrepiece of 115. It was the young Indian batsman’s first Test as captain, and he responded perfectly, following on from his breakthrough century at Adelaide two years earlier. India made 444, so it was up to Australia on the fourth day to set a target.
Warner did it again, this time ransacking India’s spinners rather than seamers for his fast start as they tried to create risk on the deteriorating fourth-day pitch. He didn’t care, the tactic didn’t work, and it was only after he’d cantered to 102 that he again tried an outlandish shot – this time bowled while trying a switch-hit to launch Karn out of the ground right-handed.
So in came Mitchell Marsh to do that instead. The right-handed part, not the switch-hit part. The all-rounder had only been in the side for a couple of games, and got to play with declaration freedom.
Six, four, six, six, he took off one over from the wrist spinner, towering skyscraper sixes that soared upward until you lost sight of the ball before raining down perilously somewhere in a distant concourse. He had 40 from 25 at one stage before being held in the deep.
By the end of the day, Australia’s lead was 363, not quite enough to say the game was out of reach. But Clarke always liked to roll the dice, and in this match, taking the draw was never going to be good enough. This had to be a celebration. It needed meaning, and it needed joy, one way or another. It had to give Australia a chance to win.
So the declaration came overnight. India would have a day to bat, and if they did, they could reach the target. The lure would be enough to keep them playing shots instead of defending. The possibilities would keep the audience tuned in. And so the stage was set.
By the last day, the crumbling drop-in pitch was ragging square. And for Nathan Lyon, this prospect was terrifying. The Adelaide Oval was his bête noire, his nemesis, twirling its little sandstone moustache and chuckling before fleeing on a motorcycle.
In 2012 he was supposed to give Australia a series lead against South Africa after Warner and Clarke again piled up the runs. But South Africa batted through an entire fifth day, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis blocking for hour after hour. Wicketkeeper Matthew Wade missed some chances, and the spinner’s three wickets from 50 overs were not enough.
It was less a monkey on his back than a fat and especially vocal baboon. That game came up often. The implied question accompanying it was: what good was a spinner who couldn’t win you a game on a dusty track on the fifth day? Now here was his chance again. But again, it just wasn’t happening.
Shikhar Dhawan was out early to Mitchell Johnson, unlucky to a ball that clipped his shoulder rather than his bat en route to the wicketkeeper. Cheteshwar Pujara held Lyon at bay for an hour before overestimating the turn and nicking. The mistake came because Lyon was getting the biggest turn of his career. The ball was shredding. But after Pujara, there were no further breakthroughs.
Kohli and Murali Vijay reached lunch, then tea. Clarke tore his hamstring stretching down to stop a ball in the field, and had to hand the reins to Brad Haddin. Vijay looked crablike, awkward, liable to go any moment, as Lyon kept bursting the ball out of Johnson’s footmarks and in at the batsman.
There were appeals, edges, umpteen balls that struck Vijay on the body, umpteen leaves to balls that were hitting pad but missing timber. And still Vijay kept accumulating towards three figures.
Adelaide 2012 was less a monkey on Lyon’s back than a fat and especially vocal baboon.
In the meantime, Kohli was reigning supreme. On that same track he turned in a masterclass. An all-time great innings can be recognised when a player in a difficult situation is playing several levels above anyone around them. When they defy conditions that sorely test or limit others.
On a pitch with all that turn, Kohli was driving against Lyon’s spin through cover. Or moving with the incoming ball to whip through wide mid-on. His feet were sure and his eye was implacable. Where Vijay was groping for a rope in the dark, Kohli was commanding a fleet from the helm.
He raised his hundred with Vijay on 99. It was past 4pm now, the shadows were fattening, and India needed another 122 with two batsmen set. It looked like another game was going to slip away from Lyon, another failure of a sort that could spell the end of his confidence and his career.
But finally, eventually, he found his opening. The milestone nerves provided it, as Vijay went back on his stumps and tried to work a ball round the corner for a single. The savage turn again. The inconsistent pitch helping it keep low. The ball lodged between Vijay’s pads in front of middle, handy for an umpire.
He was gone. Ajinkya Rahane went the same over, as much a victim of the Indian board’s refusal to use the review system as a victim of the bowler. His deflection to short leg had no bat involved, but Lyon finally had some luck go his way.
Kohli took off, needing to get ahead of the game. Boundaries through cover and midwicket, boundaries pulled and serenely glided off Johnson’s pace. But Lyon had Rohit Sharma held at leg slip, Warner throwing one desperate hand well over his head.
Kohli kept finding the fence. Wriddiman Saha, the diminutive wicketkeeper filling in for MS Dhoni, decided to go all IPL on the situation. They needed 75 when he battered Lyon for a straight six and a four. They needed 65 when he went once too often. On another day, Lyon would have been intimidated into bowling flat. This time he went for flight, found turn, and beat the charging stroke to hit the stumps.
Kohli had no choice but to press on. The score was an even 300, but the target was 364. The four batsmen remaining weren’t likely to offer much. One last flurry in the great solo could still do it.
But eventually, even a perfect performance has to produce one mistake. Lyon’s short ball could have gone for six, but Kohli’s weary arms didn’t strike it cleanly. Marsh at deep midwicket took the tumbling catch, and the masterclass was done for 141.
The Australians had been sweating, the deputising Haddin casting anxious looks around the field. All they needed was that error, but it took so long to come.
The tailenders were wrapped up for 315, and Australia had won by 48.
But it had felt so much closer than that. India was a team that had historically struggled so hard to win matches in Australia, but Kohli had so nearly dragged them over the line. Clarke had set up the challenge, but the opposing captain had so nearly taken it.
We had seen the best of these players: Warner’s audacity, Smith’s creativity, Clarke’s resilience and boldness. Lyon’s tenacity, Marsh’s timely cameos, Vijay’s fight, and Kohli’s class and courage.
All those players but Clarke were to some extent unproven; all left that match with confidence and reputations enhanced.
In a dark summer, we had seen the game that Phillip Hughes had loved, and we had seen why it deserved it.
With Foxtel showing every Australian home Test, ODI and T20I live and ad break-free during play, they’re the one-stop shop for all Aussie cricket fans. Get Foxtel today to make sure you don’t miss any of the great moments this summer with their dedicated 24/7 cricket channel.
Written by Geoff Lemon
Geoff Lemon is a writer and radio broadcaster on sport, politics and literature. He’s on Twitter @GeoffLemonSport.
Design and editing by Daniel Jeffrey
Image Credit: All images are Copyright Getty Images unless otherwise stated.