India v Australia Day 5

(This was written for FirstPost before start of play on the final day)

677 runs and 22 wickets in 360 overs over four days; eight of the first 20 wickets to those quick bowlers who were at peak levels of skill; control of the game shifting from one team to another at least once every day, often once per session — the first four days of this Test have been a template for what Test cricket at its best is supposed to be about.

If pitches could sue for libel, the JSCA would get millions without the jury leaving the box. “Rolled mud”? “Nothing like we have ever seen before”? Really?

The final day begins with one result — the draw — possible; another — an Indian win — probable. And odd as it may seem, Australia’s fate is entirely in its own hands — not in the pitch, not in the hands of the Indian bowlers and, while we are on the subject, not in the vagaries of DRS reviews that seem to be dominating conversations to an unwarranted degree.

The pitch is what it is. There are spots outside the right-hander’s off stump at one end where the ball from the quicker bowlers occasionally scoots through at ankle height. Cheteshwar Pujara showed why they are a risk only if you push, heavy-handed, away from your body to a line where you don’t have to — he never did, and he was untroubled; Wriddhiman Saha occasionally did and had narrow escapes.

There is a rough patch outside the left-hander’s off stump slightly short of good length, and from there the ball will turn, it will bounce, and both will be pronounced but slow. Batsmen playing the first line will be found out. You can expect Ravindra Jadeja to wheel away into that rough, and each over of his will cause problems. You can’t leave too many  balls, because he is looking to hit the top of off and middle and the LBW is also in play; you can’t push too hard because from that same spot, he will make the odd one go through straight and that will put the outside edge in play. But then, no one said Test batting on a day five track is easy.

On the evening of day four, David Warner batted like a smash-and-grab artist trying to burgle all he could before the cops got there and put the handcuffs on — a training video of how not to bat on this wicket. Earlier in the day, Pujara and Saha showed you how to bat on this wicket — by being aware of the trouble spots but not being intimidated by them.

Both read lines and lengths quickly out of the hand, had their responses ready for when the ball was on or around hotspots, both were very decisive in playing fully forward or back, and both used the depth of the crease to perfection. They were at ease with their defense and were not constantly on tenterhooks — which is to say, they played each ball the way it came to them; they did not play history, nor did they fashion ghosts out of other people’s fears.

Yes, both those batsmen were right-handers; the rough was outside the leg stump and less challenging than it would be for left-handers — you think?

It was just a different challenge, is all — here, the risk lay in the left-arm spinner coming around the wicket, drifting the ball across you, hitting that rough, then turning the ball sharply back across you the other way with bounce. It is not easy — you can’t play down the first, second or even third lines. Imagine an object making a rapid ‘V’ shape across your line of sight, first away towards your blind side, then back the other way, and figure out at which point to make contact in order to understand how hard it is. Coping called for a great amount of skill; Pujara and Saha made it look easy when in fact it wasn’t. Besides, there is always the example of Jadeja, a left-hander, who scored a run a ball 50 and coped just fine with that exact same rough.

As India gradually wrested control in the second half of day four, I heard pundits ]reading old, mouldy tea leaves. Australia has won only once when scoring above 400 in the first innings against four losses, I heard. Remember Sri Lanka when pretty much this same lot collapsed in just 33 overs under the pressure of batting last? — another oft-repeated line.

“My life,” the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, “has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.” As true for batsmen as for philosophers, that; in the second innings in Bangalore and during the eight overs late on Sunday, the Aussies have been battling the ghosts of their own fatalistic imaginations and not so much the deliveries that were being sent down to them.

The only lesson they need is contained in the Pujara-Saha masterclass. It was not that they batted in harness for 77.4 overs. Not that they began with India 123 in deficit and ended their partnership with the team 76 ahead. It was that they only played one ball at a time, all the time. They didn’t try to force-fit their batting to larger plans — they just worked on the recognition that they only had to negotiate that one ball in each moment, bringing all their skills and focus to bear on that one task, and if they did that, the moments would add up and the game would bend to their will.

If the Aussies focus on one ball at a time, they can pull a draw out of this. If they bat as if they were playing Russian roulette with all six chambers loaded, they will go down — and the bowlers, the close cordon and the pitch will be enablers only, not the primary causes.

****

(What follows was written at close of play, after the match ended in a draw)

Ravindra Jadeja is a born hustler. In a different lifetime, he could well have been a pickpocket in the Apollo Robbins class. Past-life karma ordained, instead, that he be born a cricketer, and after a period of apprenticeship with various Fagins of the spinning art, he has fashioned himself into the game’s Artful Dodger.

There was magic and misdirection in the way he took out the Australian captain. Including the second innings here, Steve Smith had gone 420 deliveries in this game without the Indians ever finding a way past his defense; the first 67 balls he faced this morning seemed a seamless extension of his unbeaten 361-ball first innings.

Jadeja bowled 25 deliveries to Smith that handcuffed him to the top of the crease; the batsman managed just one across those deliveries.

It was call and response at its best: I’m coming at you over the wicket, landing in the rough and turning into your middle stump, what you gonna do? Oh, pad-play Pujara style? Around the wicket, then, a bit wide on the crease to accentuate the drift I get across, onto your middle stump, with the ball bouncing and turning back across. Remember Pat Cummins in the first innings, remember Lyon last evening? Okay, you cover the stumps and shrug off the ball spinning past your edge? Interesting – I’ll go back over the wicket, into the rough, onto the pad, and if you want to keep doing that, let’s try you there again, and again, and again…

Jadeja grooved Smith into that automatic response, pad thrust a long way down, bat kept well out of the line to avoid the inadvertent contact with either edge or glove in case the ball bounced. And then he picked Smith’s pocket with one that he held back just that little bit in length. Out came Smith’s pad by rote; he hadn’t read the alteration in length. The ball landed just far enough in front of the pad to allow the turn to take it past the defense and across the bemused batsman, who stood there with his bat high, watching the ball knock his off stump out of the ground.

“Brain fade”, I heard on Twitter and in the commentary box – a characterization as unfair on the batsman as it was on the bowler. Smith was beaten in the mind and on technique; he was asked a question he had no answer for after he had spent 427 previous balls in this Test acing every possible question the bowlers and the wicket could throw at him.

For his part, Jadeja might have taken that wicket with the 25th ball he bowled to the Aussie skipper, but he had spent the previous 24 probing with surgical skill, pulling and tugging at Smith’s technique, opening up tiny chinks in the armor and finally finding an opening that allowed him to cut to the heart.

That wicket – arguably the one India prizes the most, given Smith has been the one batsman with the demonstrated capability of batting time to a standstill – came two balls after another of the little stories Test cricket is so rich in.

Ishant Sharma was bowling. It was the fifth over of a spell that, while being tight, was nowhere close to being incisive – so much so, the commentators were vociferously calling for Ravi Ashwin, then vegetating in the outfield, to come in and finish things off so we could all go home.

Ishant ran in for his first ball and was into his delivery stride when Matt Renshaw pulled away, pointing at something around the sightscreen. A visibly frustrated bowler continued into his follow through and slammed the ball along the ground to the wicket-keeper, then exchanged a couple of words with the smiling Renshaw, and many more with Smith at the other end. The Indians got into it a bit as well, prompting the umpires to bring out the extinguishers, but the incident was the lighted match to the gas Ishant is always brimming with.

Goran Ivanisevic once said there are many Gorans – good Goran, bad Goran, angry Goran and many shades in between. Ishant is Janus-faced – there is the gentle Ishant, and then there is the angry version. Renshaw inadvertently triggered the switch to the angry Ishant, and from then on it was a different ball game. There was pace, there was direction and there was searing bounce, hammering Renshaw back in his crease, hitting him on one occasion on the hip and then onto the chin.

Renshaw, till then comfortable coming forward as his trigger movement, was finally rattled. The unfailing smiles finally dried up and Ishant helped things along, following through almost to the other end, cutting loose with the lip and with an eye that seemed to shoot sparks. And then he produced the wicket ball – very full, late reverse, top pace to beat Renshaw’s tentative defense and find the pad. It harked back to the Karun Nair incident in the Indian first innings, when the batsman irritated Hazlewood who was at the time bowling a defensive line, and ended up getting taken out in exactly this same fashion.

Makes you wonder, though – why do you need an external irritant to find that spark, to fuel your inner flame? Cricketers are strange animals.

And so are cricket fans. Throughout the post-lunch session, my phone repeatedly pinged with messages from the family WhatsApp group, and with SMS-es from friends, all saying the same thing: India is bowling badly, India is letting the game slip away, India sucks.

This was the exact same time of day and period of play when, just 24 hours earlier,  Wriddhiman Saha and Chetaswar Pujara were fully in consolidation mode, resisting everything from the searing pace of Cummins to the relentless accuracy of O’Keefe, playing the ball on merit, playing Test cricket at its best. A day later, two opposition batsmen did to us what we had done unto them, and it became all about “bad bowling”. Cricketers and their fans deserve each other, pretty much.

This is what I wrote before play began this morning:

The only lesson they need is contained in the Pujara-Saha masterclass. It was not that they batted in harness for 77.4 overs. Not that they began with India 123 in deficit and ended with the team 76 ahead. It was that they only played one ball at a time, all the time. They didn’t try to force-fit their batting to larger plans – they just worked on recognition that they only had to negotiate that one ball in each moment, bringing all their skills and focus to bear, and that if they did that, the moments would add up and the game would bend to their will.

If the Aussies focus on the one ball they have to face at the time, they can still pull a draw out of this. If they bat as if they were playing Russian roulette with all six chambers loaded, they will go down – and the bowlers, the close cordon and the pitch will be enablers only, not the primary causes.

And that is what happened. Shaun Marsh got to the crease three deliveries and four minutes ahead of Peter Handscomb. Two big wickets in four balls understandably put the two new batsmen on edge – their feet stuttered, their mind was cluttered, their bats had developed edges bigger than the middle. But they hung on. And they gritted it out one ball at a time. And as time wore on, their sight improved, their feet began to move easier, their minds settled – and they played out one ball, and then another, and another…

It was rope-a-dope cricket. The two batsmen just leaned back on the ropes of their defensive techniques and absorb everything the Indians threw at them. Handscomb used his quick feet to go repeatedly down the wicket in passive-aggressive mode. The initial intent was to defend, but if during his shimmy he realized that he was to the pitch and in control, he extended his defense into authoritative pushes and drives on either side of the wicket as the lines dictated.

Shaun Marsh, in contrast, stayed relatively crease-bound, using both width and depth of the crease to get the ball below his eye-line, defending as tightly as a Pujara had done the previous afternoon. He had clearly settled down to the task of batting through, and his rock solid play permitted his younger partner at the other end the freedom to express himself a bit more freely, the contrast captured in their respective strike rates. Handscomb got his 50 off 136 balls, Marsh off a monumental 191 deliveries.

Together the two saw off the crucial middle session and whittled the lead down to where India was just three ahead in the final session of the Test, and with that partnership that spanned a total of 374 balls and produced 124 runs, the senior pro and the tyro gave Australia the lifeline it needed.

In situations such as this, with India leading on the first innings and with the opposition on a fifth-day track, the narrative calls for spinners to rip through batting sides and seal easy wins, to much cheering from the fans and many wise nods and I-told-you-sos from the commentariat. When this does not happen, we feel cheated and look for easy outs — Ashwin wasn’t penetrative, something is wrong with him, Jadeja couldn’t replicate his earlier heroics, the quicks were not as good as Cummins, there is no shock value in their bowling, get rid of X or Y, bring in Z… something, anything, to explain why the fantasy we had woven out of whole cloth didn’t come true.

But it was none of those things. The bowlers bowled, barring a brief period, with penetration, they tried their hearts out all day. They just came up against two batsmen who had not just their heads but also their hearts in the game, and who brought every skill they had to bear on one single task: survival.

This Test deserved this final day. Right from the start, it has been about individuals standing up, battling against the odds, and succeeding in despite of it — from Smith’s first innings obduracy to Jadeja’s irrepressibility, through Pujara’s immeasurable calm and Saha’s iron determination in the face of Cummins’ enormous heart and O’Keefe’s tireless, relentless skill, all the way through to the Marsh-Handscomb rearguard. That this last day produced just 181 runs in the course of 92 overs is merely a statistical tool to understand the hard, gritty, no quarters asked and none given nature of play.

The last half hour produced what for me was the finest narrative of this game. By then Australia was ahead on runs and had wickets standing. The commentators were already talking of the two teams shaking hands and calling off play as soon as five of the mandatory 15 overs of the final hour were bowled – but Kohli and his team thought otherwise.

There was no let-up, no lessening of the urgency. The tireless Jadeja, who ended with 54 runs conceded in 44 overs for four wickets, finally found a way past Marsh, making the second new ball bounce just that much higher to find the top part of the batsman’s defensive bat where, till then, the older and softer ball was finding the middle. First innings centurion Glenn Maxwell came out, the Indians upped their game, and Ashwin after a series of close calls took him out, bat-pad, refusing to give him an easy passage to the next Test.

They used two short covers, besides slip and silly point at Handscomb and when he went legside to counter that, gave him two short midwickets — with such fields, they made him work for every run, though every run he made at that point was pointless and had no bearing on the outcome.

They throttled Matthew Wade, four fielders surrounding him like prison bars, refusing to let him relax and go through the motions. The umpires kept asking Kohli when he was going to call things off, and the Indian captain and his mates kept shaking their heads at them and dashing off to the other end to try another over.

There was no way for them to win, the draw had seemed inevitable even a couple of hours earlier. “Why are they doing this?” Sunil Gavaskar, a veteran of Test cricket, asked in the commentary box. “They must be tired by now.” Ravi Shastri, Sunny’s Test-mate and former team coach, endorsed that view.

But that’s the thing: the umpires had enough, the commentators were tired, the Aussies just wanted to go off and put their feet up, but the Indians weren’t tired, not a whit. As long as the game was on, they wanted to play. And as long as they were playing, they wanted the intensity right up there – nothing, they seemed to be saying in the way they approached those final few minutes, will come easy against us.

It was brilliant to watch, and when Kohli did call it off it was because he had to. There were just two overs left in the day; a changeover of innings takes those out of the equation, so finally the Indians stopped play when they ran out of time, and gathered around to applaud the brilliant Handscomb off the field where, earlier, they had similarly paid tribute to Marsh when the number four had gotten to his 50.

Much has been said, and more will be, about the needle in this game, of shoulder clutches and harsh words and sundry other contraventions of the “spirit of the game”. But if you were watching that last hour, you saw that “spirit” exemplified. You saw a batting unit unwilling to relax even a fraction though their job was done and their team had been saved. And you saw a bowling side unprepared to walk off, to rest, to put their feet up, not as long as a minute remained where they could keep trying, an over remained that they could bowl.

Someone should preserve this game in aspic, and point to it every time the old cry of Test cricket losing its charm is heard. Or maybe that is just the Test tragic in me.

(Both copies have been mildly edited to remove some clumsy phrasing, but are otherwise unchanged)

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2 thoughts on “India v Australia Day 5

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  2. It is such a joy reading your thoughts and take on cricket. The way you write, and the insight you provide, stirs emotions unlike any I feel when reading a cricinfo commentary (or any other cricket commentary). Reminds me of your writing on the India vs. West Indies series praising Sehwag’s exploits (and of course the brilliant Bhimsen series).

    Thank you for doing this.

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