Chess and poker are oddly different sports yet staggeringly similar - both require the best of minds to crack. However, the only thing that makes them different are the stakes on offer and in Gabba, the stakes were high, possibly higher than what a round of poker could offer in Las Vegas.
It was a cat and mouse game, the cat was seemingly on its home turf, knowing the ins and outs of the location. On the other side, there was a mouse, which was venturing for the first time in its life against the mighty cat. But in between these two sentences, the underlying truth was hidden, the cat knew the turf overestimated itself while the mouse was brave and just relied on its never-ending self-confidence.
Cat and mouse; Australian bowlers and Washington Sundar - the game was never tilted more one-sided than ever in history. Never had a team conquered Gabba in the past three decades and never had a side as young as the Indian bowling unit conjured the Australian batting to a total of under 400. Both of it happened in the same flow, the batting breach was conquered, the venue was pending as Washington stepped on the field. 186 runs on the board but six wickets lost, was it a win or a loss?
The crowd and the Australian bowlers were in unison, both loud and rowdy, they were vicious, barbaric and merciless. Washington begged to differ, certainly begged to be at mercy when he walked out to bat. Words were exchanged, looks too (not so pleasant) and yet between the chirpy atmosphere, the all-rounder was spotted with a poker-face. Fear was certainly something that they had, time and again found in the visiting batsmen’s eyes, but zeal? Even the monk who goes by the well-known monikers wouldn’t quite put on a phiz as he would.
Australia were really the grandmasters by then, they had a certain plan for every move from the opposition. They had removed the toughest piece on the board, the queen (Pujara) and were brimming with confidence when the certain pawn walked out. But little did they know that he wasn’t playing that, he was into poker and rather a calm one. Every step of his was equally calculated and progressive. The two often don’t compliment each other but in this circumstance, it was the best escape route from the chaos that transcended across at the Gabba.
He was welcomed by the Aussie age-old tradition - a pint of short delivery and a barrage of words. One often met with the other in this part of the country and for a cricketer, who stayed back just as a net-bowler, it was rather an unpleasing sight. But his duck signalled something very different, he was up for the fight, in Australia’s own fashion at their own den - on debut.
When he crunched his first boundary, the hopes of the Indian fans were still grim, with a section of fans still rubbing their eyes in disdain over the manner in which the middle-order crumbled. The game was gone, or at least the fans assumed, and they went back to sleep. But so did the Australian bowlers. Coming as a replacement for Ravindra Jadeja, the pressure was always going to be there but an average of 31.29 in first-class suggested that Sundar was up for it. But it wasn’t quite first-class, was it?
Time and again during his time with the pressers following day one’s play, the Tamil Nadu cricketer stressed on the importance of getting a hit out in the nets. For a cricketer who last looked at red-ball in 2017, Gabba was always going to be daunting but time and again, the new age Indian cricketers have erased that word from their dictionary. But what they haven’t erased is the technique and approach that has always surrounded the top-order batsmen from the Indian subcontinent.
While luck favoured him early on, his two shots against Starc to fetch two boundaries certainly showed that there was never a room for the Australians to get past his puzzling tactics. The hosts measured all their moves but this was an unventured territory for them. Even their best red-ball bowlers couldn’t find a solution. When they did, it was too late.
But in between all of this, the left-hander certainly showed elegance, something that every left-hander often possesses, but this time from uncharted territory. The wrist work to negate Lyon around, the foot press to push away Starc as quickly to the boundary as he delivers, the drop shoulder to move away from the Cummins threat, there was a poker-faced solution to all the moves. That wasn’t it, he also had to face the threat of Hazlewood, who knew how to get wickets out of impossible situations.
This time, the challenge was too big for him, as he crumbled to walk back to his bowling crease, minute after minute frustrated. When the new ball was taken by the Australian quicks, it was a time to finally make merry, pierce the boundaries and put the bowlers back in their place after a chirpy afternoon for them. Yet over and over again, the monk within the Chennai boy returned to show it’s unwavering presence. Nonchalant, placid, serene, calm and composed, Washington was well-placed amongst the synonyms for unfazed.
As the fifty came nearby, the left-hander showed patience and determination, in half and a half to put out the loose deliveries. When the fifty did arrive, the feeling didn’t quite sink in, with every delivery from the training session seemingly flashing on his front door. He joined a revered company, after picking up three wickets in the first innings, to have a 50+ score and a three-wicket haul.
Swifty move the picture to the Australian batting, Smith at the crease with Labuschagne, Australia on the ascendancy after India’s strong start. Three tight overs, where the poker-faced youngster had a counter-punch to every plan from Smith. So much so that after a while, the Australian had a near nightmare of another tall spinner from Tamil Nadu running riots. It wasn’t Ashwin bowling, yet the result was similar as Smith walked back, shaking his head yet again.
After labouring through till the end of the day, he was brought back to the attack, this time to dismiss Cameron Green, who looked destined to get Australia past the 400-mark at the Gabba. But it wasn’t meant to be, it wasn’t a given thing as Washington once again created a mental-block in the batters’ minds with his illusion of spin. In this case, it didn’t, it went on to crash the stumps. Paint that picture with his no-look six, you would understand why having a poker-face brought the best of the youngster in the toughest of conditions.
On a day where Australia were hell-bent on playing chess (read mind games), it was the clever tactician, the poker-faced lanky spinner who won the battle. It wasn’t chess, it wasn’t poker but it was cricket, a sport that the hosts were running away as favourites. But once again as India has done numerous times, they found a way out after nearly getting checkmate.