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What if Wednesday | What if Michael Clarke dropped Sangakkara to deny Nathan Lyon his first wicket

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What if Michael Clarke dropped Sangakkara to deny Nathan Lyon his first wicket

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What if Wednesday | What if Michael Clarke dropped Sangakkara to deny Nathan Lyon his first wicket

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Anirudh Suresh

01/20/2021

On his first-ever ball in Test cricket, Nathan Lyon dismissed the great Kumar Sangakkara, something which was rendered possible by Michael Clarke, who took a blinder at first slip. Lyon has since gone on to play 100 Test matches, but what if Clarke had spilled the chance that morning in Galle?

We know that Lyon, after dismissing Sangakkara on his first ball, went on to claim a five-fer on debut, and we know he has since become the greatest Australian spinner not named Shane Warne. But how would Lyon and Australia have fared had Michael Clarke not bent down to dismiss Sangakkara?

With debutant Trent Copeland having dismissed Dilshan early, Clarke, with plenty of turn on offer in Galle, summons his newest trump card, rookie Nathan Lyon, to bowl to nemesis Kumar Sangakkara. Remarkably, the young South Australian spinner gets turn, drift and bite in abundance and inflicts an edge out of Sangakkara’s bat on his very first ball in Test cricket, but, to his utter horror, he sees skipper Clarke put down a dolly at first slip. 

Coming on the back of a match-saving 119 at Southampton, Sangakkara needs no invitation to make the most out of his luck and pummels the Australian bowlers post the drop on a sportive Galle wicket. The Lankan legend stitches 150-run stands with both Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera and sets up an innings victory for his side, but agonizingly falls six runs short of yet another double ton. Australia eventually succumb to a heavy defeat, but the focus, however, is not on their batsmen. 

Under heavy scrutiny is the showing of debutant Lyon, who with figures of 0/183 posed no threat to the SL batsmen, and soon the off-spinner endures the same fate as his predecessors Michael Beer and Xavier Doherty and is axed after one bad showing. The management, bizarrely, revert back to Beer for the second Test, but that, too, makes little difference as the Lankans complete a 2-0 rout. 

With defeats in each of his first three matches as captain, Michael Clarke is keen to turn his fortunes around and thus requests the selectors to make wholesale changes for the South Africa tour. Australia, remarkably, travel to the rainbow nation without a spinner, and instead lay their faith on rookie tearaway Pat Cummins and Tasmanian all-rounder Luke Butterworth. 

Butterworth gets the nod ahead of Cummins for both Tests, but despite kick-starting his career with a three-fer with the ball, the all-rounder, in his very first match as an international cricketer, finds himself as a part of unwanted history. The Aussies are pumped after bundling out the Proteas for 96 on the morning of Day 2, but they mind-numbingly stoop to an all-time low an hour later, getting bundled out for 21, the lowest score in Test history. The Aussies fail to shrug the shock off and err with their lines and lengths to enable an easy South African chase, and the Proteas ride on the momentum and psychological edge to win the second Test and whitewash their arch-nemesis. 

Losing 5 Tests in a row as an Australian captain is bad enough, but failing to win a home series against Trans Tasman rivals New Zealand mounts pressure on skipper Clarke, who now has the forthcoming four-match Test series against India to salvage his captaincy. Heads roll in the side, and Clarke, this time around, does the wise thing and opts for a frontline spinner in the form of Cameron Boyce, who started the Shield season off with a fine 6-wicket showing against Victoria. 

Boyce is picked for the first Test at the MCG, but he is not the debutant everyone’s harping about. All the limelight is on 18-year-old Pat Cummins, who is widely perceived to be the best talent to have emerged out of the country since McGrath. And the prodigal youngster does justice to his hype and makes an instant impact, scalping a six-fer in the very first innings. 

However, it is the events that unfold in the second innings of the Boxing Day Test that sends the internet into meltdown. Chasing 291, India are placed comfortably at 54/2, but a brute of a bouncer from Cummins crashes into Sachin Tendulkar and breaks his arm. The maestro retires hurt and walks off the field in pain, but he is not the only who’s suffered ill fate. Young Cummins, to his and Australia’s absolute horror, exits the game abruptly after pulling his hamstring, and thus despite being a batsman short, India dust off the target against a handicapped Aussie attack with 4 wickets to spare to go 1-0 up in the series. 

The injury to Sachin means that India are dealt with a selection conundrum ahead of the second Test, and to everyone’s surprise the management pull a rabbit out of their hat and fly in 23-year-old Ravindra Jadeja as replacement, on the back of his stellar triple ton versus Odisha. And although Jadeja is primarily picked as a batsman, it is his contribution with the ball which helps India clinch the series.

With Australia 37/3 in the second Test at the SCG, still trailing India by 154 runs, a Dhoni masterstroke sees him employ young Jadeja to turn the ball away from the right-handers Ponting and Clarke, and the move pays instant dividends with the left-armer trapping the Aussie skipper plumb in front. Australia rolling over for 120 enables India to utilize the best batting conditions and inflict a 187-run defeat, and the thrashing turns out to be the final straw for Clarke, who is replaced mid-series as captain by Brad Haddin. 

But despite stand-in skipper Haddin’s best efforts, the Australians are unable to avoid an embarrassing home whitewash. What comes as a blessing for the hosts, however, taking away attention from their horror show, is the duo of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, both of whom on the final day of the Adelaide Test, confirm that they are hanging up their boots with immediate effect. 

The retirements of Dravid and Laxman, and the extended injury lay-off to Sachin, sprinkles poignance all over India, but it is also an exciting time for the fans, for they now get to see the ‘next-gen’ in action. Kohli, Pujara, and Jadeja impress in the home series against New Zealand and help the team whitewash the Kiwis, but while they are lauded for humiliating a strong English side in the first Test in Ahmedabad, a shock defeat in Wankhede leaves the general public mortified. But, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, heading into the third Test in Kolkata, the axe does not fall on the youngsters.

The management, for the Eden Gardens Test, instead, drop the under-performing Yuvraj Singh and the misfiring Pragyan Ojha to accommodate Ajinkya Rahane and hometown hero Ashoke Dinda. Rahane fails to make an impact, but Dinda, however, produces a series-turning contribution. With England 165/1 in pursuit of India’s first innings total of 316, the right-armer dismisses the trio of Cook, Trott, and Pietersen in the span of three overs to carve the visitors’ batting wide open. The collapse exposes the lower-order, who put up no fight and succumb to the spin of Ashwin and Jadeja. The 85-run lead gives India a significant edge and the spinners, yet again, run riot on the final day to go ahead in the series. England are keen to level the series heading into match four, but a flat Nagpur wicket throws a spanner in their works and ensures a series win for India. 

But while India are winning matches for fun at home, that is not the case with Australia, who under newly-appointed skipper Shane Watson are embarrassed by South Africa, who register yet another series win Down Under. Like his predecessor Clarke, Watson, too, now has the Border-Gavaskar Trophy to salvage his captaincy.

The day is February 22, 2013, and Chepauk is packed - not just inside, but also on the outside, with there being a queue stretching up to 3 kilometers. All that those people want is to catch one final glimpse of the returning Master Blaster, who on the eve of the Test announced that the Chennai encounter will be his last. They know that it will not just be his last match, but also his last opportunity to achieve the coveted 100-hundreds feat. 

With Sachin a hit away from his hundredth international ton, all crowd cameras pan towards the Little Master in excitement, but in a matter of seconds the exuberance turns into heartbreak. Sachin’s chapter ends with him nicking a ball to Michael Clarke at first slip, but while it is the end of his story, it is just the beginning for Nathan Lyon, who finds himself as the country’s lead spinner two years after being discarded. 

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