India versus Australia is a gift that keeps on giving. Even before the final Test began in Dharamsala on Saturday, this series would have gone down as one of the best in recent memory. Australia jolted the World No.1 India out of complacence in Pune, from which the hosts came back with a bang in Bangalore. It was followed by an attritional trench warfare of a match in Ranchi.
So, heading to the mountains, you could be excused for thinking that you had seen it all. You would have reckoned, both teams, drained like two fighters in the championship round, had already exhausted their power punches. Were it indeed boxing, by now you would expect them to be resting against each other in a clinch position. But on the first two days of the decider, they have stood toe to toe, trading blows.
After debutant spinner Kuldeep Yadav pegged back Australia on the first day, the visitors hit back with an exposition of disciplined bowling to leave India at a precarious 248/6, still 52 short of their first innings total on a wicket which is cracking up and where a batsman CAN score but is never in. If Steve Smith, David Warner and Matthew Wade discovered that on Saturday, it was the turn of KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane to learn that lesson on Day Two. In the face of some hostile bowling by Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, on a track whose bounce brought Nathan Lyon’s off-spin into the equation, Rahul and Pujara played with great application and went past the 50-run mark yet again in the series. “Just when they looked set..” is the phrase you would use on any other track when an established batsman who has worked for his runs painstakingly gets out.
But in Dharamsala, against such fierce bowling, you ought to show a bit more empathy towards the batsman.
Rahul had diligently avoided playing the short ball all morning, but having brought up his fifty after lunch, he thought he could take on a 90 mph snorter from Cummins. He tried to hook without getting in position, and ended up toe-ending it to Warner at mid-off. Coincidentally, Warner too had perished at nearly the same stage of the Aussie innings: after lunch and having completed a fifty. Both Warner and Rahul were also beneficiaries of a let-off at slip early on in their innings.
Pujara has been India’s answer to Smith in this series. They both have amassed over 400 runs in a series where most batsmen have struggled. He began from where he left off in Ranchi. His footwork against the spinners was as usual assured and, facing short balls, he kept himself out of harm’s way. Curiously, Cummins tested him with the short stuff not nearly as much as he did Rahul. Towards the second half of the middle session, Lyon started to get turn and bounce off the wicket. Together, Lyon and Steve ‘O Keefe brought India’s scoring down to a trickle. Pujara and Rahane, who had started aggressively off Cummins but slowed down against spinners, are masters at the battle of attrition and pacing innings. They were happy to retreat strategically and allow the bowlers to tire themselves out before coming after them in the post-tea session.
Refreshed after break
It looked like that was what they were waiting for. But if at all, the Australians came rejuvenated after tea and started to create all sorts of trouble for the batsmen. Lyon has grown up on such pitches in Australia that have a bit of turn and plenty of bounce. It’s then that bat-pad scenarios and the slip fielder come into play. He tossed up one wide off the stump at length and it broke and climbed onto Pujara, who pressed ahead. It hit his glove and then the pad before ending up in the short-leg fielder’s hands. Karun Nair tried to defend from the crease, but to pretty much the same effect.
“After bowling a couple of overs on it before lunch, I sat down and thought about what it (pitch) is similar to and it was closer to a home wicket where I can try and generate the bounce because the bounce is my biggest weapon where I am getting guys caught at bat-pad and slips. I went back to knowing how I bowl in Australia, which is probably the best way I should bowl, just backing my skill and enjoy the challenge of playing the best side in the world in their home conditions,” Lyon said at the post-play press conference.
Rahane and R Ashwin took the attack to the spinners before Lyon had Rahane defending awkwardly at one off the back foot and edging to the slip fielder while beating Ashwin’s inside edge and hitting his pad in front of the wicket. He had kept them in the crease by firing in faster ones in between, before getting them out with his bread-and-butter ball.
“It was a bit of a tactic. If you looked at the way the Indians have been playing me, especially Ajinkya, he has been sweeping me a lot. My plan was to come over the wicket and try and get him not to sweep me so I can bring my stock ball to be more effective, and it worked well. I spoke to Steve Smith about that at tea and was happy with the way it came out in the end,” Lyon revealed.
A few lusty blows by a belligerent Ravindra Jadeja forced Smith to take the new ball, and Australia nearly struck, but Renshaw, who had dropped Rahul, this time grassed Wriddhiman Saha at second slip. It was indeed the ‘second slip’ for Australia on a day when they were nearly impeccable.
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