When Virat Kohli and Co lost four wickets for eight runs, that too in nine overs, in the morning session on day four of the second Test against Australia, every Indian fan would have feared the worst. It was a remarkable collapse from 238/4 to 274 all out in 70 minutes as the Australian bowlers led by Josh Hazlewood wreaked havoc. That set the visitors a target of 188 runs with plenty of time and overs in hand, and it looked like India were heading the way they did in Pune, having handed the initiative they had at the end of day three firmly back to the visitors.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane carried on from where they left, but were soon prised apart, Pujara falling in the nineties for the first time in his Test career and Rahane departing shortly after getting to a fifty. They had stitched together a 118-run partnership for the fifth wicket. The variable bounce proved to be the Indian batsmen's bane, and while a sharply rising delivery got the better of Pujara, Ravichandran Ashwin was bowled off one that went under his bat. Karun Nair paid the price of playing away from his body — a cardinal sin on a wicket such as this. Wriddhiman Saha and Ishant Sharma, however, showed some resolve to take the lead to 187, before Ishant threw his wicket away to an uppish drive. From leading by 126 runs at the close of day three to getting bowled out after adding just 61 runs, India had quite a slide in the morning session on Tuesday. In the first Test, India had lost seven wickets for 11 runs in the first innings.
However, it was soon to prove that even 188 can be a mountain to climb on a wicket as the one that the Bengaluru Test was being played on, and against the quality of the attack that the hosts possessed. One knew that the Indian spin duo of Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja would have been the prime movers, but there were certainly something there for the pacers as well, as Hazlewood showed with a six-for in India's second innings.
And right on cue, Ishant gave India the first breakthrough in the fifth over of the match itself by sending back Matt Renshaw, the extra bounce doing the damage.
Australian captain Steve Smith joined David Warner in the middle and the right-left combination was giving the impression of being quite at ease, as the score reached 42/1 in the 10th over. The run rate was good and with every run scored, the tension in Indian camp rose that much more. But soon Warner was rapped on the pads by Ashwin while attempting a sweep, and was adjudged 'out', albeit after taking the circuitous route of a review. It was the ninth time that the swashbuckling Australian opener was out to the wily Indian off-spinner.
Shaun Marsh was next to the crease and he too was not willing to be easily dislodged. He added 25 runs with Smith for the third wicket — runs which were all the more magnified in terms of value considering the difficulty of scoring and the context of the contest. However, Marsh would consider himself desperately unlucky having been given out lbw while shouldering arms, though replays suggested that the delivery from Umesh Yadav had not come back enough. Australia had, by that time, already used up a review, and Marsh chose not to go upstairs, and would be cursing himself for that.
However, that was the kind of luck that India needed and they had their tails up. But Smith was playing with confidence and had hit three boundaries. But soon Australia suffered a body blow as Smith was caught plumb in front of the stumps to Umesh on a ball that just refused to bounce. The Australians thought about a review and Smith even cheekily gestured to the dressing room for some clues, but umpire Nigel Llong was quick to clamp down on any mischief. Australia were now reeling at 74/4 and India smelled blood.
Then there was a mini fightback from Peter Handscomb and Mitchell Marsh. Handscomb had shown in Pune and in the first innings of this Test that he is more than a handy player in the middle order and this was a chance for Mitch Marsh to prove that he was good enough for the crucial No 6 slot. A match-winning innings under enormous pressure, on a spiteful pitch and against Ashwin and Co would have done his CV a world of good.
The two batsmen strained every sinew to put up a credible resistance, and there was a flurry of boundaries with both Ishant and Umesh going for runs, and one straight drive by Mitch Marsh stood out as the shot of the day. The pair added 27 runs for the fifth wicket and took their team past 100 - a huge psychological barrier crossed, especially when you are chasing a smallish total on a pitch on which runs were difficult to come by. That brief period of two-three overs gave the impression that the match was slowly swinging back in the visitors' favour.
But that was unless Ashwin struck again, removing Mitch Marsh for 13. At that time Australia needed 87 to win, which gave rise to a bit of banter in the commentary box on providence playing a role in Australia's slide, given that the number 87, which is 13 short of 100, is considered 'unlucky' in Australian culture. The belief gained wind when Matthew Wade went for a duck on the same score.
Tea was called after Wade's wicket, with Australia now tottering at 101/6 in 27.5 overs. After tea, the Indian bowlers made short work of the contest, claiming the remaining four wickets for only 11 runs, as Australia were administered a bit of their own medicine, getting bowled out for 112, in the same manner that they bowled India out for 105 and 107 in the first Test in Pune. In fact, the Aussies had lost their last six wickets for 11 runs, much the same way India had lost their last seven wickets for 11 runs in the first innings at Pune.
Ashwin, in the process, took his 25th five wicket haul, the fastest to do so. He reached this milestone in 88 innings, a good 12 Tests less than that taken by the legendary Sri Lankan and highest wicket-taker in Test history, Muttiah Muralitharan. Ashwin can now be called the 'milestone man' of Indian cricket, much the same way as Sachin Tendulkar had been.
The Bengaluru Test was special because it was not a one-sided affair as the one in Pune, nor those that India had won so convincingly in their long home season. This is perhaps the only occasion in India's home season, after maybe the Rajkot Test against England a few months back, in which both sides had a chance to win. Yet the Bengaluru Test would stand out for the being closer than the one at Rajkot. There was a real see-saw battle between two of the premier sides in Test cricket. India vs Australia on the cricket field is a storied contest and the Bengaluru match was all that Test cricket should be in the day and age of Twenty20 to stay relevant.
It was edge-of-the-seat stuff for all of day four and some high quality, dogged fight on the days preceding it. In the end, there had to be a winner and a loser and the hosts applied themselves and took advantage of the conditions just a bit better to win by 75 runs. Surely, Kohli's team made a molehill look a mountain to win battle of nerves on Tuesday, but there was not a lot of daylight between the two teams. What matters most, though, is that Test cricket won in Bengaluru.