This column started as a lament, and finished as a song of praise. When writing began, before play on the final day in Ranchi, few gave Australia a hope of avoiding defeat. India appeared to have gained control of the match and, in all probability, the series.
The upbeat tone of coach Darren Lehmann, after the fourth day had gone bad, was widely viewed as false bravado. In the end however, the news was good and it wasn’t fake.
It’s nice to be forced to do a re-write; enjoyable to see an Australian team defy the odds as underdogs. This is particularly so given that the final-day battle against a rampant India was won by two of the less-likely suspects for such an achievement.
What transpired was epic. It might have been the most thrilling draw achieved by our national team since Ken ‘Slasher’ Mackay and Lindsay Kline held out the West Indies for 110 minutes at the Adelaide Oval in 1961. That defiant stand remains immortalised, so it’s a serious compliment to utter the names Shaun Marsh and Peter Hanscomb in the same breath.
Ultimately, the outcome vindicated Steve Smith’s tactics. Much has been said about the Australian skipper’s reluctance to bowl Glenn Maxwell during India’s marathon innings, with Smith appearing to not believe the Victorian all-rounder capable of containing opposition batsmen.
Perhaps Smith simply doesn’t rate Maxwell as an international bowler. In the recent five-match ODI series against Pakistan, Maxwell was at no stage summoned to the crease, with the less-experienced Travis Head’s part-time off-spin regularly preferred.
While the circumstances of a five-day Test were vastly different, Smith didn’t waver. Yet this was a situation in which you’d have thought a spare-parts player was a vital component.
Meanwhile, Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe returned a collective 4-362 – the figures Arthur Mailey once ‘achieved’, then complained a bloke in a bowler hat in the pavilion had dropped a couple of sitters.
Maxwell played two Tests in India in 2013 and took seven wickets at a cost of just under 28 runs for each. The downside was that he conceded close to five runs per over. Presumably, Smith feared that to employ him might let India off the chain once and for all. He didn’t bowl himself for the same reason.
It seemed from early on Day 4 the Australian captain’s mindset was defensive, even with India more than a hundred behind. So, four specialists supplied 206 of the 210 overs bowled. If India was to build a significant lead, they would bat for as long as Smith could make them do so.
That one of the quartet was the injury-prone Pat Cummins, whose every delivery caused almost audible winces of discomfort all over Australia, speaks of how fixed the team’s leadership was on its plan.
Now Smith finds himself requiring no better than a draw in the final Test to become the second Australian captain in 30 years to break even in India. In that event, his team would retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, which would provide immense satisfaction in more ways than one.
The Indians, now as in the past, have demonstrated an unrivalled capacity to get under the Australians’ skin. The home team’s captain, Virat Kohli, hasn’t aggregated 50 runs in the series but has made his presence felt in other ways. Ravi Jadeja’s sword-twirling (with his bat) upon reaching 50 last Sunday was as flamboyant a moment of self-congratulation as one would see. His ignoring of the umpire when appealing is worse. Ishant Sharma, too, hasn’t been averse to provocative protestation and celebration.
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Whatever, it’s making for some of the most tense and riveting Test cricket in a long time. It’s a reminder of why playing India in India is as challenging as it comes in modern cricket.
It’s also a reminder, if one cares to be open-minded, that our players also aren’t bad at triumphalism when on their home patch. Just like the Indians, they know a thing or two about subjecting umpires to maximum pressure. Australian teams, too, aren’t always humble in victory and those who have succumbed here would be inclined to leave these shores thinking, “Just wait until we get you in our conditions.”
All of which makes the next series between the countries in this part of the world a mouth-watering prospect. It will occur late next year and might be more keenly anticipated than any series ever played between the two nations.
But that is to get ahead of ourselves. It still hasn’t been finally determined which country will hold the Border-Gavaskar Trophy at that time.
The final Test of the current series, in Dharamsala, is now as titillating a one-off prospect as any single Test in recent time.