Script flipped as India seize control

19 March 2017

Australia fighting for survival with hosts needing eight wickets to take 2-1 series lead

Australia v India Tests, Third Test


A more recent edition of the history that haunted Australia as they embarked on this watershed tour of India would have warned them of precisely the scenario that now confronts them come the final day in Ranchi.

Where, after being utterly dominated by India’s batting and their immovable number three Cheteshwar Pujara in particular, they enter day five of the third Test still 129 runs away from making India bat a second time and with only eight wickets at their disposal to achieve that.

Kohli's celebration pours fuel on Ranchi drama

Knowing that this Test, which they fought so doggedly to regain a foothold within after a profligate opening session last Thursday, is now theirs to lose.

With India surfing a wave of momentum generated by Pujara’s double-hundred and Ravindra Jadeja’s late-in-the-day double cameo with bat and ball towards a 2-1 series lead with a Test to play in Dharamsala starting next Saturday.

The manner in which India have crafted this position of strength should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Virat Kohli’s men force their way to the top of the world Test rankings over the past year.

I'm confident they can do the job: Lehmann

It’s the same template that India used to such devastating effect in their two final Test wins over England late last year, both of which came by more than an innings after the tourists batted first and posted scores of 400 (in Mumbai) and 477 (Chennai).

On both occasions India responded by posting huge replies of more than 600 that kept Alastair Cook’s flagging men in the field for 182 and 190 overs respectively, before scything through them for sub-210 totals on the final day.

Quick Single: Stats wrap: Records tumble in Ranchi

If Australia is to avoid that fate, they will need to find a specialist batter or two capable of channelling the skill and stamina of Pujara, whose 202 was his third double century in 47 Tests which is only one fewer than his skipper, Kohli (who has played 57).

Not only did the 29-year-old withstand the raw pace and aggression of Pat Cummins - Australia’s best bowler who must have raised concerns in the team medical room by being asked to bowl 39 overs - he forged a hugely important union with wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha.

This was not a belligerent counter-punch from a recognised batsman paired with a competent partner in the lower order.

Pujara's epic 202 flattens Australia

Rather it was a coldly calculating display of attritional batting, banishing risk in recognition that the pitch was providing no assistance for bowlers and the only sure way of surrendering their wickets was to lose concentration and gift them away.

The flair came in the final hour when Jadeja took to the flagging Australia attack to blast an unbeaten 54 from just 55 balls in barely an hour, his half-century celebrated by an extravagant bat-waving ritual that might have been borrowed from a baton-twirling dancing girl.

And he then flattened the off stumps of struggling opener David Warner and nightwatchman Nathan Lyon with a couple of near unplayable deliveries less than half an hour later. 

Umpire's head-scratching moment on day four

But while the gauche nature of Jadeja’s bat gesture might have stuck in the Australians’ craw, the character of the spinner’s innings might have proved something of a spirit lifter.

The clear message being that if the opposition’s number nine can help himself to five boundaries and a pair of sixes, even against a fatigued bowling line-up, then survival was far from improbable.

However, having spent so long in the field there was a sense of resigned weariness as well as inevitability in the way the tourists negotiated the 7.2 overs sent at them this evening.

For the first time in more than 20 years, Australia was compelled to bowl more than 200 overs in an innings as India patiently and relentlessly pushed their first innings lead out beyond 100 and eventually to 152.

In fact, they bowled more over the course of two energy sapping days than Cummins has delivered in his entire six-year first-class career.

Pushing the visitors’ four-man bowling attack to the point of exhaustion as well as the brink of distraction, and ensuring that when the time eventually came for Australia to bat again their batters would also be feeling heavy of legs and cloudy of mind.

Armed with the knowledge that the traffic that has churned across the Ranchi pitch for four days – turning the rolled and compacted mud into rolled and compacted mud with some footmarks at its extremities – won’t be as easy to bat on as Pujara and Saha made it seem.

Especially with India’s first innings destroyer Jadeja pitching his left-arm spinners into one of those churned-up sections, which will likely prove problematic for those three remaining members of Australia’s top eight who bat left-handed.

If Jadeja was a handful in the first innings when he claimed five wickets, he looms as a one-man demolition crew if his 20 deliveries that netted him 2-6 prior to stumps is a thumbnail sketch.

And it will be Smith who is now expected to shoulder a bulk of the batting job to save this Test tomorrow, after his bowlers served him with as little question as luck today.

The workload piled upon Cummins, Josh Hazlewood (44 overs), Steve O’Keefe (77) and Nathan Lyon (46) also raised questions about Steve Smith’s unwillingness to use his fifth bowling option.

With spin-bowling allrounder Glenn Maxwell used for just four overs of the 210 sent down, and Smith even less willing to try part-timers including himself (even though he bowled a few overs in the middle with fellow spinners O’Keefe and Lyon on Test eve) and vice-captain David Warner.

But in his desperation to snare that one wicket that might have unlocked India’s innings, Smith kept going back to his four specialists who kept plugging away with admirable commitment but minimal impact.

Although the tourists did feel they had made the vital breakthrough that opened the door to India’s bowlers in just the second over of the morning.

First session: Pujara, Saha frustrate the Australians

When Pat Cummins’ first ball of the day veered past the inside edge of Saha’s bat and slammed into the knee-roll of his front pad, with New Zealand umpire Chris Gaffaney agreeing with the tourists’ bellowing appeal.

But no sooner had Cummins began celebrating a five-wicket haul in consecutive Test innings (albeit more than six years apart) than Saha called for the DRS process, which started this series as India’s sworn enemy but has recently emerged as a trusted ally.

When the ball tracking technology showed the delivery would have shaped past leg stump, the Australians surely thought the wicket they sought was not far away, with Cummins getting some reverse swing out of the ball now more than 50 overs worn.

That wait dragged more than four hours, and chewed up a further 62 overs in which India added an extra 165 runs that took from nervous deficit to decisive lead.

A few other chances came and went during that period before a weary Pujara finally played a false shot.

Pujara’s review of the lbw decision given against him on 157 showed the delivery from Nathan Lyon bowling around the wicket to be spinning so far as to miss leg stump as well as the inside of the indefatigable Indian’s broad bat.

And in the next over, Saha aimed a cut shot at Steve O’Keefe that was too close to him and bounced slightly more than both the batter and keeper Matthew Wade expected, with the thin edge bouncing from Wade’s gloves as a result.

The fact that more chances were not created stood as a testament to the concentration and application of the India pair who ultimately mounted a seventh-wicket partnership of 199 in more than five hours together.

A record for India in Test matches against Australia, and one that effectively swung a Test that was evenly poised over the first three days to a scenario whereby India was feasibly the only team likely to conjure a win.

Under normal cricket circumstances, which have not always been observed throughout this wildly oscillating series.


India: KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Karun Nair, Ravichandran Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav

Australia: David Warner, Matt Renshaw, Steve Smith (c), Shaun Marsh, Peter Handscomb, Glenn Maxwell, Matthew Wade (wk), Pat Cummins, Steve O'Keefe, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood