India vs Australia Day 4

(Before play, as posted to FirstPost’s live blog)

One hundred and eighty.

If you like turning over envelopes and calculating possibilities on the reverse, that is the number you want to put down first. 180 overs remain in this Test and every calculation, by either side, will be predicated on that number.

If you are an Australian point of view, you need to figure out how many overs you reckon you need to bowl India out in the second innings. This is neither Pune nor Bangalore and even in the last innings, you want to budget at least 90, 100 overs for the job.

Sounds like that is rating India too high, or selling the Aussie bowling too short? Their main strike bowler is Pat Cummins who, in just his second first-class game after injuries kept him out for five years, has had to combine the durability of the workhorse and the penetration of a shock bowler. He produced consistent, searing pace and headhunting bouncers; two of those got him wickets that would have been beyond the capabilities of most other quicks — but it’s been hard toil for a player not yet fully grooved into the demands of Test cricket in these conditions.

Jadeja the other day talked about “good bowling fitness”, which he defined as not mere physical fitness but being in the mental and physical space where you can bowl to your plans for over after over, hour after hour, without flagging. It is that fitness Cummins will be short of — for understandable reasons, but still.

O’Keefe has bowled 43 mostly defensive overs already, buying his one wicket for 117 runs. Nathan Lyon, since taking out Ishant Sharma as the last of his eight wickets in the Bangalore first innings, has bowled 62 overs, just six of them runless, given away 179 runs, and is yet to get a wicket across two innings. His exertions in Bangalore have rubbed his spinning fingers raw, and split open a callus, which makes it even harder for the off spinner to get the revs he needs to be effective. And Josh Hazlewood, except during that brief period when Karun Nair inadvertently blew on the embers of his banked fires and got consumed in the resulting conflagration, has had to play a mostly stock role — great economy rate, great display of sustained control, but that is as good as it got.

So, 90 overs, at the least. That is, the entire 5th day to try and bundle India out. For how much? Even on the last day, this is not exactly a 200-is-too-much track. So, 250?

How do you get to that point? If India get bowled out without adding a run to the current score, fine — 90 ahead, make 160 or even 200 across most of day four, and Australia controls it from there. But each over India plays and each run it scores on the fourth morning makes Aussie calculations go increasingly pear-shaped.

India can afford to bat for time because the longer it bats, the more the pressure is on Australia to not buckle cheap in the third innings and let India get a sniff. Australia on the other hand needs to attack; it needs a quick finish to the Indian innings and on the evidence of day three, none of its bowlers bar Cummins looks up for it.

This game has been about what some individuals did. Jadeja in the first innings bowled with the irrepressibility of India rubber. Smith batted like the rock of ages — immutable, imperturbable, impervious. And Maxwell forged ambition in the fire of hunger and played the sort of knock he can feed off for the rest of his career.

But equally, this game has been about what individuals did not do. Warner, Renshaw, Marsh, Handscomb all threw away a toss that was, on this track, easily encashable for the additional 150 that would have put Australia in a winning position. Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane gave away opportunities to cash in on Australia’s first innings aberration, Vijay and Rahane after getting the game well in hand and Kohli without getting his head into the game at all.

The last two days, on a track that will not give either quicks or spinners any undue help, will remain a test of nerve and intent. The scoreboard puts India 91 behind with just one proper batsman standing; the back of the envelope scribbles suggest that the game is balanced dead even and that India, more than Australia, is placed to take control.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could play cricket on the back of envelopes, though?

PS: David Saker, Australia’s bowling coach, said something last evening and makes you wonder if the Australians think their chances here have diminished. While discussing Cummins and applauding his comeback, Saker said, “I can’t see him bowling too many overs tomorrow and maybe if we do have a bowl on the final day, I think it will be more a spinning wicket.”

*****

(Post-match report, as posted on FirstPost)

If India had got its favorite Bollywood fabulist to script the day, it would have read like this: India, starting the day 91 runs behind with just four wickets in hand, will add 243 runs for the loss of just three wickets.

That score will include a magnificent double century for one batsman, a century for another, a whirlwind unbeaten fifty for a third. In the process, they will show yet again that on any track where a visiting team is good enough to get 400+, the home side can crack 600 with something still left in the tank. It will then declare with a lead of 150-plus, still leaving itself a few hours for a crack at the opposition. And then its irrepressible left-arm spinner, with five-for and a 50 off 51 balls already under his belt in this game, will crack the opposing team open, taking out their hard-hitting opener and night-watchman with the most perfect deliveries you want to see from a left arm spinner.

If fable became fact, it owed to one man: Cheteshwar Pujara. Who batted on, and on, and on, scattering records like chaff — more time at the crease than any Indian batsman ever, more balls faced than any Indian batsmen ever, an innings that was a monument to patience and concentration, a masterclass in Test batting the old-fashioned way, a knock that, for its influence on the game and for the way it turned a game on its axis, will rank alongside VVS Laxman’s legendary 281 in Kolkatta 15 years ago against the same opposition.

But it was not about that, really. It was not that Pujara batted as if he could go on in that vein for all five days if he was allowed to. It was, more importantly, that he made Wriddhiman Saha believe he could bat endlessly too.

There was a moment in the 171st over when Saha seemed to be getting a bit fidgety. The Australians had managed to keep the runs down throughout the day, using pace at one end and restrictive spin at the other, making the Indians work hard for every single run. It was slow, intense, absorbing in the way Test cricket is supposed to be.

Saha seemed to feel the pressure. In that over, to O’Keefe’s relentless line on or outside leg stump, Saha skipped down the track and swung hard, hitting out of the rough against the turn, and was lucky to see the mishit fall out of reach of short midwicket. To the very next ball he jumped out again to try the same shot, swinging even harder this time — and got a thick outside edge to send the ball flying in the opposite direction, again very lucky to clear mid-off.

The batsmen took three as Warner chased it down, and Pujara immediately waved his partner over for a prolonged, earnest mid-wicket chat. Who knows what the senior batsman told his impetuous partner, but Saha spent the next 18 balls he faced in studied, almost ostentatious, defence before he indulged himself with a little ramp to a short ball from Hazlewood down to third man for a brace. Those 18 strokeless deliveries were a very obvious, visible, determined effort to settle back down, to get his head back in the game, to find the patience Saha had misplaced.

That was Pujara’s real influence — not that he believed in himself, not that he had the mental fortitude to bat as long as it took, to dig as deep as it took to pull his side out of a potentially losing position and into the box seat, but that he made his partner believe, and focus, and buckle down to the same goal.

The Pujara innings will draw accolades from everyone – commentators, analysts, statisticians, fans. But the best tribute came in the moment of dismissal, when Pujara was well into his 11th hour at the crease. The Indian dressing room had sent out a message to both batsmen to get on with it; Pujara played an uncharacteristic heave and got away with it, then he played an onside chip from well outside off, a shot he would never have thought of playing — and never, in fact, played on any one of the 524 balls he had faced previously — and chipped straight to midwicket.

His reaction was illuminating — he looked up at the overcast skies, screamed at himself in frustration, and slapped his bat hard against his pad in anger. It was not enough that he had played a marathon of the kind that is going out of style in Test cricket; he wanted more. Equally illuminating was the fact that Glenn Maxwell, the man who took that catch, came running over to shake Pujara’s hand before joining his mates in muted celebration. The Aussies clapped him off the square — the best possible tribute to an innings that had even the team at the receiving end appreciating the effort.

Saha did admirably well to keep Pujara company, repeatedly and often visibly checking his baser instincts, keeping a tight rein on his strokes, particularly his tendency to launch into the sweep at the first sign of a spinner, and batting on, and on, through the first session, then the second session and into the third, intent on doing his bit for the team cause.

Equally noticeable was the Umesh Yadav-Ravi Jadeja partnership. Umesh started off in his usual slapdash fashion, swinging away with a lot of effort for very little. Someone in the team dressing room sent out a rocket disguised as a bottle of water, and Yadav immediately retooled, settling into an almost ostentatious defence and keeping his end going to allow Jadeja to bat with freedom at the other, getting the team the quick runs needed to put up a formidable lead with time to spare.

The Australians held their nerve throughout arguably the most heartbreaking day of cricket they will have played in a long time, more so as it came after two Tests where they dominated more sessions than the home side. Two players deserve special mention. Pat Cummins, back in international cricket after injury breaks lasting five and a half years, bowled his heart out on a heartless pitch that gave him little, but out of which he somehow magically extracted much. The other hero for Australia was left-arm spinner O’Keefe. With Nathan Lyon still nursing his blistered spinning finger, O’Keefe was the boy on the burning deck for his side, wheeling away relentlessly for an incredible 77 overs out of the record 210 overs Australia ended up bowling. If Pujara’s innings was a monument to concentration and focus, O’Keefe’s spell was no less — it showcased a player with a heart as large as all outdoors.

And just to round off a perfect day, Jadeja closed it out with an exhibition of left arm spin. Against the left-handed David Warner he was in his element, bowling over the wicket into the rough. He hit his spot with laser-like accuracy (when he was batting and O’Keefe made a few jump out of that same spot, Jadeja was seen nodding to himself, walking down to the spot to stare down at it, almost like he was committing it to memory). Out of there, he made it turn in sharply, pulling Warner’s defense out of shape and opening up the gap for the ball to go between bat and body and onto the stumps.

When the right-handed Nathan Lyon walked out to do guard duty for the night, Jadeja immediately went around the wicket and drifted the ball across onto a middle stump line, this time all craft no rough, made the ball hit the deck, break back, glide past the angled defensive bat and hit the top of off. Two deliveries of the sort you dream of — in fact, of the kind O’Keefe spent 77 overs searching for — produced two wickets and left Australia, at the end of the hardest day of Test cricket they have played in a while, 129 behind with eight wickets left.

It was as total, as complete, a turnaround as a Test has taken in course of a single day’s play. Fabulists hardly dare write such scripts for being thought too over the top.

(In my FirstPost column, I had erroneously said Laxman’s innings in Kolkatta was 261; that error and a couple of slipshod sentence constructions have been corrected in the version above)

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