The India vs Australia cricket rivalry is one of the most celebrated in cricket, with the two giants of world cricket having produced a number of memorable contests since they first squared off back in 1947. The second match of the ongoing Border-Gavaskar Trophy just happened to be the latest entry in that coveted list, with the Indians staging a spectacular comeback to pull off a series-levelling victory in Bengaluru.
After being humbled by the unfancied Australians in Pune with a 333-run loss inside just three days, which brought to halt their 19-match unbeaten streak at home, it took a display of character and attrition for Virat Kohli's men to rise back to their feet. Among the several positives for the hosts in their win is the captain not playing a central role in the team's win, if one doesn't take his pumped up celebrations and energetic presence into account. The other being the hosts having the mental edge heading to Ranchi for the third Test of the series.
There would be those who would take Kohli's toss win into account while discussing the match. Winning the toss did have its advantage – that of maximising India's chances of avoiding batting on the fourth and fifth days, when the turn and bounce would have become the most difficult to handle. Yet, there's more to the story than just that. Had it not been for some individual brilliance, India could have very well been in the dumps, trailing 0-2 in the series.
To highlight that point, India's collapse to a lowly 189 in the first innings comes to mind. If Steve O'Keefe was the hero with the ball in the Pune Test, it was Nathan Lyon who stole the thunder on a Bengaluru track that seemed to have changed character with the pitch having been relaid. Bengaluru boy KL Rahul was the only member of the side to put up any fight whatsoever, falling short of a century by 10 runs with a tired shot towards the end. The rest simply failed to find any answers to Lyon, who had earlier earned captain Steve Smith's ire in the home Test series against Pakistan due to his inconsistency. With a haul of 8/50 against a famed batting line-up, he made his case for being considered as the true successor of Australian spin legend Shane Warne.
A score of 189 is not the best of starts, and requires the team's bowling unit to grab early wickets in order to pull things back in their favour. With the Australian openers David Warner and Matt Renshaw stitching together an unbeaten 40-run stand in the first innings, the visitors seemed to have already surged ahead in their quest to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. What transpired in the first session of the following morning can perhaps be best described as the first time India put up a fight since Day 1 in Pune. By giving away just 47 runs in 29 overs along with the key dismissals of Warner and Smith, they sent out a clear message that they were not going to let their lowly total dampen their spirits.
Dampening India's spirits is something that young Renshaw (60) and Shaun Marsh (66), however, managed to do over the course of the rest of the day. While Renshaw continued to grow as an opener, absorbing the pressure at a time when the Indian bowlers seemed to have got their mojo back, and deflating pacers and spinners alike, the older of the Marsh brothers in the team vindicated the selectors' faith in him by bringing up his sixth Test fifty, aside from top scoring for his side.
With a well-set Matthew Wade and big-hitter Mitchell Starc resuming from the overnight score of 237/6 on Day 3, the visitors would have safely expected a lead of at least 100 by the end of the first session, with every run thereafter being an added bonus. Starc tried treading along the line that got him a quickfire half-century in the first innings in Pune, and perished to Ravichandran Ashwin a little over 10 overs later. It was a one-way street in favour of the Indians thereafter, with Ravindra Jadeja wiping out the remainder of the batting line-up despite being grossly under-bowled the day before, finishing with figures of 6/63.
In a series of ups and downs, this was the latest twist in the game, and restricting the visitors' lead to within 100 would have given the Indians some hope moving forward. With Rahul and Abhinav Mukund (India's replacement for the injured opener Murali Vijay) managing to stay unbeaten till the end of the session with a partnership of 38, thing were looking positive for the hosts.
The second Indian innings, however, summed the match up in a nutshell. Mukund departed almost immediately after lunch, marking a disappointing return to Test cricket after five-and-a-half years. Rahul could not bat much beyond bringing up his second half-century of the match, thanks to a superman-like catch by Smith in the slips. Skipper Kohli's newly-discovered lean patch continued after he was trapped leg-before for 15, before the experiment of bringing Jadeja in at No 5 ended with the southpaw's middle-stump going for a cartwheel off Josh Hazlewood's bowling.
After his eight-wicket haul in the first innings, Lyon happened to compare his dismissal of Kohli to cutting off the head of a snake. While he might have meant it as a form of praise for the Indian captain, the latter responded in stormy press conference at the end of the match by saying: "I’m pretty happy if they keep focusing on the head of the snake, and the snake can sting from a lot of directions." The game-changing partnership between Cheteshwar Pujara (92) and Ajinkya Rahane (52) is one of the things Kohli was perhaps referring to in that statement.
On a track that was producing the proverbial spitting cobras more than ever, the two stuck to their tasks with workman-like approach. Pujara was lucky to have been dropped on a couple of occasions early in his innings, while Rahane stepped onto the pitch on the back of an inconsistent run of form that stretched back to the start of the England Tests. Yet, they defied all odds while holding fort till the end of the day's play, producing a century partnership while guiding India past the 200-run mark — both cases being a first in the ongoing series. In another first achieved in the stand, the two ensured India did not lose a single wicket in the final session of the day.
For those who were hoping for the two to guide the hosts past 300, it took one delivery from Starc to trigger yet another collapse, this one being a case of pure domination by some serious pace. After trapping Rahane lbw for 52, Starc smashed Karun Nair's off-stump in the latter's very first delivery with a 154-kmph thunderbolt. While Starc had been effective in chipping away at the opposition so far in this series, it was this spell that truly unleashed the fiery pacer in him that has made him one of the most feared pacers in the world in contemporary cricket.
With Hazlewood removing Pujara in the subsequent over, India went on to lose their next five wickets for just 20 runs. Wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha and pacer Ishant Sharma put up a dogged display to get India as close to the 200-run lead as possible, and it was a rash drive by the latter that eventually ended India's innings, with a lead of 187.
The target of 188 was by no means an easy one for Smith and Co to chase down on a Day 4 track, which the hosts were well aware of. The Indians' confidence grew in leaps and bounds after the early dismissal of the visitors' most consistent batsmen, Renshaw, with Ishant's testing line just outside off and the extra bounce getting him the prized wicket. Ashwin dismissed Warner for the ninth time in his career not long after, with both Australian openers back in the hut with 42 on board.
Shaun Marsh's leg-before dismissal to Umesh Yadav was rather unfortunate, given that he was rapped on the pads well outside off while shouldering arms, and walked back to the pavilion without using the review. In a rather hilarious incident, Smith — who was at the non-striker's end — revealed in the post-match presser that he had asked Marsh to go upstairs, which the latter misinterpreted as an order to save the only remaining review for Australia, and walk off. There was more comedy to follow, as Smith tried looking at the dressing room for advice on DRS after being adjudged lbw to Yadav himself, before being stopped from doing so by umpire Nigel Llong while drawing a strong reaction from the Indian captain. The incident did not by any means stay on the cricket field, and soon became the talk of the town after Kohli's comments in the post-match presser.
"Because there’s a line that you don’t cross on the cricket field, because sledging and playing against the opponents is different. But… I don’t want to mention the word, but it falls in that bracket. I would never do something like that on the cricket field," revealed Kohli, stopping short of calling Smith a 'cheat'.
The dismissal though, turned out to be a crucial one for the hosts, who began to sniff victory with the scoreline reading 74/4.
The steady incision by the pacers had set the foundation for Ashwin to strike the killer blow in his second spell, using his stock of deliveries to great effect to capture five of the remaining six wickets as the tourists collapsed like a pack of cards — from 101/4 to 112 all out, and India won the Test by 75 runs. Not only did it send a billion Indians into rapturous celebrations, it also marked the return of Ashwin to prominence after a tepid run so far in the series.
In what turned out to be a roller-coaster of a game, it was the Indians who pulled off a heist with their display of determination as well as application. Such was the quality of the contest between the two top teams in the world, that Kohli later described it as the most memorable win under his captaincy so far.
If anything, the events at Bengaluru have set things up nicely for the next two games, and the Indians will travel to MS Dhoni's hometown of Ranchi with a psychological boost. The battles between the two camps, both on and off the field, are heating up with each passing day, and could very well reach a crescendo at the JSCA Stadium in the Jharkhand capital. Whatever the outcome, we are witnessing a classic series that should put to rest all talks of Test cricket being a dying format.