Objectivity is an elusive creature – its lack easily spotted in others, its practice so hard when it is your turn.
My read of play on day one of the Dharamshala Test was that Australia had done badly with the first strike in conditions conducive to good batting, and left a good 200-250 runs on the pitch. And that still feels like the right call.
But from there, I called the Indian follow-up as an exercise in batting long and deep, the innings extending six sessions across two days to double the Australian score and still leave itself two full days to bowl the Australians out.
And that is where objectivity went for a toss, and I failed to factor in that if one side could collapse in a session against good bowling and tight fielding, so could the other; if one side could absorb the mental fatigue of a tiring session and come back strong and hard, so could the other; if batsmen on one side could forget their disciplines and end up throwing away good batting opportunities, so too could the other.
Tunnel vision lay behind my reasoning that if India could weather the morning burst with the new ball, the quicks would lose their sting. In any case, I figured as an extension of that reasoning, Pat Cummins in just his second international outing after an injury layoff extending more than five years could not physically sustain hostility over extended periods of time, which in turn would reduce Josh Hazelwood to bowling stock.
Sobering statistic: At tea Australia had bowled 59 overs. Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood bowled 29 of those, with the pacier Cummins bowling the odd extra over. Intensity? His last spell before tea was an extended five overs in course of which he first took out KL Rahul with a searing bouncer to go with some fiery words before; his first three balls to the incoming Ajinkya Rahane were all quick and sharp, the first drawing an attempted ramp, the second a pull, the third a top-edged pull.
And in the final minutes of the day’s play, with 19 overs under his belt, he was still sharp enough to take the second new ball and produce an unplayable lifter off good length, with sufficient late swing at peak pace to draw Saha’s edge and but for Renshaw shelling an easy catch at first slip, force another wicket. You want to stand for Cummins — to bowl that many overs at speeds that rarely if ever dropped below the mid-145k mark, and often inched up to the 149k level, is hard enough; to be able to bounce twice, thrice in every single over through a long day of Test cricket is the sort of effort that exhausts superlatives.
In similar vein I reasoned that where India’s two spinners, numbers one and two in world rankings at this present, could find neither consistent bounce nor sharp turn on day one, Nathan Lyon with a spinning finger rubbed raw and a split callus to add to the pain would never be able, in the optimal batting conditions of day two, be able to give the ball enough of a tweak to be sufficiently threatening – and again, to my surprise and some discomfort, Lyon turned on an exhibition of off-spin bowling that was straight out of the top draw: beautiful rhythm and balance, lovely loop and dip drawing repeated errors in the reading of length, great drift, big bounce, and almost square turn every time Lyon wanted it. It was a performance that put both my read, and Ashwin’s first innings performance, in perspective.
There was one other thing I missed: the essential quality of this Australian side, which lies neither in its good batting nor all-round bowling but in its collective spirit, in an ability to fight its way back every single time it falls behind in a game. Again, I should have known better, as should anyone who has been watching what is proving to be the best Test series in a long time: this outfit under Steve Smith has repeatedly showcased that bounce-back-ability in Pune, in Bangalore, in Ranchi. And now, here.
This is true: if you happen to be ringside when the irresistible force meets the indomitable object, the smartest thing to do is to shut the hell up, get out of the way, and let the game unfold as it will.
PostScript: Some days, events on the field of play seem to cohere into an overarching narrative. On other, rarer days the narrative shifts shape and form faster than you can follow.
Today was one such. Four hours of play resembled one of those old-time Western novels where the hero rides his horse across a featureless desert for page after page, the only point of interest being to see whether he or his horse collapses first.
And then everyone went off and had a cup of tea, and the last two hours somehow turned into a Jack Reacher novel with outsize heroes and outmatched anti-heroes and punches and pratfalls…
In my note to the FirstPost editors at close of play, this is what I said:
Follows, a few thought bubbles, fragmentary impressions, from the third day’s play. Fragmentary, because yet again in this series the two sides took turns in the driving seat and often, there seemed no logical, no visible reason, to explain the switches in control. So.
Here are those fragments, those thought bubbles from an engrossing second day at the cricket.