A song of fire and ice

THE following happened in the space of 11 deliveries:

A fast bowler produced a searing delivery from around the wicket in the channel around off, seaming away late while climbing. It was good enough to beat attempted aggression by a well-set batsman playing his preferred area square on the off, to find the thick edge and fly to slip, where a regulation catch was shelled by probably the worst fielder in the side. (The fact that he was standing there testifies to this — captain Rahane wanted fleeter feet in front, and despite having caught like a dream at slip all series, opted to pull out of slip and post himself at mid on).

A little later the batsman takes that same line at that same pace backed by a field set exactly for that shot, and nails a square drive that drills a hole through the point region to the fence. To the same length and very nearly the same line, the batsman then pulls fiercely, taking the ball from outside off and despite pace around the 140k mark, hitting across the line and defeating the best opposition fielder at mid-on. The batsman wants either a one or a three to retain strike; it ends up as a two as the fielder recovers quickly.

At the other end, the man who had just dropped the catch gets a ball in perfect line, just close enough to the stumps to compel the batsman to play, the ball bouncing off the deck, turning sharp and late and finding the edge. The fielder at second slip gets down low quickly, gets his fingertips around the ball, holds, appeals, gets the decision, and races into the pavilion because he has to come out shortly and bat.

The decision meanwhile is reviewed and it turns out the ball kissed the turf just the tiniest bit. The player who pulled off the catch (Vijay) has to come dashing back out from the pavilion and onto the field of play. The bowler and fielders are upset; an umpire actually gives one fielder a sympathetic pat on the back in passing.

And one ball later, the bowler makes one go through straight to defeat a batsman on the lookout for turn, hits the pad, gets the LBW, triggers another review, and this time gets the ruling in his favor.

Eleven deliveries from start to finish showcasing good quick bowling (Umesh Yadav), fierce batting (Wade), desperate striving to keep control of the game in his hands (Wade again), intelligent spin bowling that gets a batsman almost out with one kind of delivery, then uses it as set up and takes the same man out with the other type (Ashwin). And sandwiched somewhere in there, both bad catching and good.

That was how the Australian second innings ended, and that in microcosm is how this entire Test series and particularly this final Test has been: dramatic, packed with incident, its plot points coming so thick and fast that it becomes impossible to chronicle, or even catalog, them all.

THE events of the previous day’s play had me musing on the irresistible force/immovable object paradox, which the Chinese began pondering as early as the third century before Christ.

Neither they nor anyone else has solved that one yet – but if and when they do, they can get started on the Dharamshala Corollary: to wit, what happens when the two opposing forces change roles, now irresistible, now indomitable, so often that it becomes impossible to tell the other from which?

When play began this morning, Australia was in control. 52 runs ahead in a game where every run has to be excavated at the cost of blood and sweat with just four wickets left to take. An hour into play, India had assumed control – the deficit wiped out, the wickets still intact, the batsmen in the middle batting with increasing nonchalance and near-immaculate control.

In the very next hour, Australia takes back control, blasting out the remaining wickets, allowing just 28 more runs to be added to the 4-run lead. At the end of hour three, India – are you managing to keep track of all this? — are right back in control, having taken three wickets in the space of 11 overs, with the opposition a mere five runs ahead of the game…

Test cricket is about momentum, control, shifting from side to side. But almost invariably, these swings of fortune happen over time and are the result of the slow action-reaction sequences triggered by opposing strategies and tactics.

What has distinguished this India-Australia series is not that fortunes have swung end to end– when two closely matched teams take each other on, you expect that to be the norm. What makes this really special is the pace at which such swings have happened – look away for half an hour, any day of this series, and more likely than not the two teams have changed the narrative on you and taken the storyline in totally unpredictable directions.

While memory is fresh on both sides, someone needs to chronicle it, capture the many events as they ramified, and preserve all in a book. And some day maybe a decade from now, someone born in the age of Twitter and weaned entirely on the compressed versions of cricket will read it and dismiss it all as wild exaggeration.

PostScript: My post-play report is here. And below, please find a couple of thought bubbles, spinoffs from an enthralling day of Test cricket at its very finest:

#1: Ravindra Jadeja gets a bad rap on social media, where he has been ironically knighted. It’s taken a while, but Jadeja is now the one laughing last, loudest, longest.

Even by the standards of a home season that has seen him match, at least statistically, the batting numbers of his presumed betters such as Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Vijay and Rahul and equally, match and then overhaul the performance of his bowling partner and world rankings topper with the ball, this final series against Australia could be the breakout performance he needs to establish himself as the first name picked in any format, on any conditions, in any country, against any opposition.

That he has learnt to take the pitch out of his equations when he bowls has been evident for a while; that he has learnt to be equally penetrative against left handers and right handers, top order batsmen and tailenders, is also increasingly self-evident. Of more recent vintage is his self-discovery as a complete batsman. He came in to bat when India was down and almost out; he top-scored to leave India in a position to win the game. But what was remarkable was not the runs he scored, but the manner of it.

His wagon-wheel here was exemplary. On the off side, he stroked 11 through the covers and six in the mid off region; on the on, he had six to square leg, 12 through midwicket, 14 to long on. It was an amazingly even spread on a track where the best batsmen on either side were reduced to mostly playing on the on. Accentuating that is the fact that where edges and nudges were the default mode of scoring for most, Jadeja only scored five behind the wicket, on off and on sides combined.

Where everyone found Nathan Lyon unplayable, Jadeja stroked an easy 27 runs off  34 balls faced. His authoritative six off O’Keefe, hit with casual contempt, meant that Steve Smith never used the left arm spinner for the duration of Jadeja’s stay at the wicket — that is to say, for a span of over thirty overs. He left what he had to and defended when he must, playing out 68 dot balls, and he still ended up scoring his runs at 66.31 – quicker, under more pressure, than Smith and Warner had done in the Australian first innings. And this controlled innings came on the back of the one in Ranchi where, with the tail for company, he went after quick runs and batted with freewheeling enterprise.

#2: Ajinkya Rahane is a quiet fellow who goes almost unnoticed on the field, particularly in a team led by the tempestuous Virat Kohli. Even his celebrations are muted – a slight smile, a token high five more for form’s sake than with any vim. In a lippy team, he is the one who has nothing to say to the opposition – and yet, when it comes down to it, he turns out to be the most aggressive of the lot.

Every Indian captain I have watched as part of my work, and that is a list that goes all the way back to Azharuddin, would in the Australian second innings have gone with in-out fields, trying to find a balance between taking wickets and defending runs.

Rahane attacked flat out – three slips, gully, point in, cover in, mid off in, mid on mostly in, midwicket drawn in, square leg well inside the ring… His intent was clear: he was willing to concede runs if the opposition was good enough to make them, but his first priority was to back his bowlers.

Equally, every captain I’ve watched would have had either Ashwin or Jadeja opening the bowling or, if they felt unusually ambitious, used the debutant hero of the first innings first up. Rahane slipped the leash on Umesh Yadav and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and let them bowl 13 straight before he even turned to spin.

There was considerable appreciation in the commentary box for India’s aggressive bowling in the second innings, but insufficient acknowledgment of the fact that no bowling unit can attack consistently unless they are given sharp teeth in the field.

Consider, too, his perfectly weighted bowling changes. That he brought Kuldeep Yadav in as early as the 14th over, as the first spinning option ahead of Ashwin and Jadeja, owed to the fact that the debutant had dismissed the two batsmen then at the crease, Maxwell and Handscomb, in the first innings.

When Maxwell went after Kuldeep in his second over, hitting him for a six and a four off successive deliveries, and smacked another four in the next over, Rahane allowed the youngster yet another over and kept the field up. Contrast with Smith, who took O’Keefe off after just one show of aggression by Jadeja and kept him off for the entirety of that partnership. Also consider what it means to a young bowler when the captain shows faith, doesn’t banish him after one expensive over.

Kuldeep’s spell was 5-0-23-0. After that 5th over, you knew he was going off. At the other end, Jadeja was bowling beautifully (4-1-9-0), and yet it was Jadeja who came off to give place to Ashwin. And then in the very next over, Jadeja was brought on at the other end. Ashwin got Handscomb in his second over; Jadeja took out Shaun Marsh in the very next over, his second after the change of ends.

You could dismiss all this as happenstance. When things go well for you as they sometimes will, it is easy to hype molehills into mountains. But go back and consider the post-lunch session on day one, and you see similar patterns.

Rahane is an outwardly quiet lad, but an aggressive one who doesn’t need words and pumped fists and incestuous suggestions to channel his aggression. He is, too, a noticing lad; he sees things and he acts on them.

Kohli will come back once he recovers. And he will take back the captain’s armband, which is both fair and natural. But his injury timeout has had one unlooked for benefit: India has found its next captain, for when it needs one.

(My match report for First Post)

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