When Ravindra Jadeja sent a darter through Nathan Lyon’s defences late on the 4th day of the Ranchi Test, the turnaround was complete for India. Like they did in the final two matches of the England series, they had outscored the opposition’s supposedly imposing total and had taken out the possibility of an Indian loss.
Now was the time to turn the screws and Jadeja, the man with the amazing gift of annoying the opposition with whatever he does, was central to the plans. Lyon, the nightwatchman, had come and gone and Australia were left with eight wickets to defend on the final day.
Steven Smith’s Australia show amazing steel
Not many experts gave the Aussies a chance and it was only a fair assessment, based on historical evidence of visiting sides collapsing in a heap at the sight of an Indian spinner on the 5th day. Whether the ball spins or not, the mind plays tricks and that is often enough to unsettle the batsman.
As play started on the final day, a few of Jadeja’s trademark celebratory runs were looked forward to and the Ranchi crowd could be forgiven for thinking they had an early finish on their hands.
To be honest, few people had given the Aussies a chance going into the series and they have left onlookers surprised by what they have achieved so far.
Going into the final game at Dharamshala, Australia are a good day’s play away from repeating a feat managed by Alastair Cook’s England, who on the back of the spinning duo of Swann and Panesar, clinched a monumental 2-1 series win in 2012.
To win a Test series in India remains one of the toughest challenges of modern day cricket and having come so close to achieving the feat, Steve Smith will be gutted if Australia do not manage to seal the deal.
The joy of a 5th-day graft
Back to the 5th day at Ranchi, though. There is something extremely heroic about watching a side fight and survive a 5th-day draw. ‘Alll hands on deck’, a cliched phrase so frequently used by Cook to describe the umpteen number of times England have been in such a situation for the past few years, rings true despite its oft-repeated status.
It is equivalent to a game of chess where a player blunders a piece or misses a complex combination to lose one in the middle-game, but conjures up such a solid defensive web in the end-game, that the material advantage of the opponent is rendered pointless.
Or a game of football where after a man is sent off (and in some rare occasions, even two) the team suddenly finds such defensive steel that the opponents struggle to break through despite the obvious physical advantage.
And so, while Matt Prior was eking out an error-prone but epic hundred at Auckland in March 2013, the author was sitting in a Delhi school attending an office conference call as Prior and Stuart Broad took England close to an improbable draw.
They had begun the last session with three wickets in hand and Broad took 62 balls to get off the mark, but when he and Jimmy Anderson fell in quick succession with moments left in the day’s play, things looked like coming to a quick end. However, Monty Panesar, despite his best efforts to run himself out, helped England stage a miraculous escape.
Two years later, in Oct 2015, England looked set to lose what had been a chastening Test at Dubai, against Pakistan. However, Adil Rashid launched some rearguard action that turned from symbolic to serious in an hour’s time and soon enough, England were within 10 overs of another Houdini-esque escape.
As luck would have it, though, Rashid drove one straight to the cover fielder, and the players shook hands.
Therein, though, lies the beauty of Test cricket. The languid pace of play means that a lot can still happen when seemingly, nothing is really happening. In such colossal drawing efforts, the scoreboard ceases to be of relevance and the only battle that matters is that of the bat trying to thwart the ball.
Therefore, when Peter Handscomb and Shaun Marsh showed the maturity to survive on the pitch, and eventually take the game away from a frustrated India, their defiance was a thing of beauty.
In this case, it also helped Australia that India’s lead was only about 150 and once they had wiped the deficit out, it was a pretty straight-forward draw with the number of wickets left. It’s the journey towards wiping out the deficit that is tricky, though, and once a team is able to deal with that kind of a challenge, they are bound to take a lot of heart from it.
With travelling teams struggling to mount serious challenges in recent times, this has been a wonderful series to watch. Moreover, the benefit of doubt must also be given to the Indians for they are at the fag end of a long and very successful home season. Here’s hoping for a fitting finale in Dharamshala.