88 overs were bowled in the day; 230 runs were scored; 14 wickets went down. That, statistically, is what happened on day three in Dharamshala.
But those numbers come encrusted with a surfeit of drama, of tensions, and butt-clenching excitement that elevates this day into the best day of Test cricket even in a series that has had more than its fair share of drama.
The day belonged to two fast bowlers, one on either side. Pat Cummins and Umesh Yadav turned on an exhibition of pace bowling of the sort of quality rarely if ever seen on Indian pitches. Both operated at peak pace backed by bristling aggression – you would have sworn that every ball they bowled left a vapour trail in its wake. Between them, they took five wickets of the 14 that fell – but along the way the two left scorch marks on the pitch, on the edges of the bats of the opposing batsmen, on their bodies and their helmets and even, you would imagine, on their psyches.
And there was aggro to go with it. It all began in the 111th over when Steve Smith, conscious that Ravindra Jadeja and Wriddhiman Saha were running away with the game and threatening to go into lunch unbeaten, turned to his spearhead. The very first ball from Cummins in this spell was searingly fast and seriously short – even Jadeja, who had at that point faced 87 deliveries and scored 52 runs found it too hot to handle and was pinged on the helmet.
Cummins bounced again. Jadeja shaped to hook, realised it was too quick for him, and let it through. Cummins produced another short ball and Jadeja by then had had enough; he was being talked at by Wade behind the stumps and by Cummins on the follow through and his fuse, always short, was lit – he hammered the hook over midwicket and took four for it. Smith put three men back on the leg side for that shot and Cummins bounced again – quicker, the ball steeping higher, and Jadeja whirled into yet another hook, a firm, hard top edge powering the ball over the head of deep backward square leg. Cummins, unable to bounce again as he had used up the quota for the over, bowled on length, Jadeja defended, and then gave Cummins a beatific smile.
The first ball of the 113th over was again seriously quick, but wide and on good length – Cummins, adding cleverness to aggression. Jadeja was parked on the back foot waiting for the short ball, he saw the width and went after it, got the thick under edge and the sound of the stumps being rattled was drowned by Cummins’ feral scream of triumph.
And off the first ball of his next over, Cummins again produced a superb lifter, really using the power of his shoulders to make it climb off length. The best batsmen in the world would have been tested by that; Saha, batting well at the time, found it too hot to handle. His instinctive move in self-defense saw the ball take the shoulder of the bat and fly fast to second slip, where Smith flew high in the air, timing his jump to a nicety, and plucked the ball out of the air as it was going past him. When Cummins came on for that spell, India were 5 runs ahead with four wickets in hand and the 7th wicket partnership was worth 84; by the time he was done with that titanic, lung-busting effort, India were 18 ahead and had lost three wickets (Steve O’Keefe winkling out Bhuvaneshwar Kumar in between the quick’s twin strikes).
Brilliant though that Cummins spell was, it was shaded less than an hour later by Umesh Yadav. In his first over, he nearly took Matt Renshaw’s head off with a snorter that kicked off the pitch and arrowed straight at the tall batsman’s face. Saha had to climb a ladder to bring that one down. And with the first ball of his second over, he took out David Warner with a quick bowler’s dream ball – from over the wicket, on good length outside off, climbing off the deck, swinging back in and taking a slice out of the batsman’s outer edge to Saha. Karun Nair, who seems to make a habit of this, had let Warner off in the previous over, again at third slip, again off Bhuvaneshwar Kumar; Yadav ensured that unlike in the first innings, the let off cost India nothing.
And the wicket only seemed to have fired him up. He found a couple of extra yards of pace and tormented Matt Renshaw with seriously quick short balls followed by perfect deliveries outside off that screamed past that outside edge; after each such episode, he paused in his follow through to give the batsman the death stare. Matt Renshaw’s smiles had lit up the first half of this series; those smiles were now gone, the batsman’s unease was palpable, and smelling blood, Umesh in his 5th over went around the wicket, speared down another bounce at Renshaw that had him hurrying to save his face from serious damage, then produced one of those in the channel – seriously quick with serious bounce and seam movement, squaring the batsman out, forcing him to fend at it, and finding the edge to the keeper.
And he still wasn’t done. Brought back in the 51st over, he terrorized Nathan Lyon with lift and late movement and one ball later, got the petrified batsman pushing him straight to second slip. He would have got the combative Matt Wade too, with a scorching delivery in the next over that came in sharply from outside off to draw the edge on the attempted cut, only for Ashwin to drop a sitter to the bowler’s evident disgust. Ten overs, three of those maidens, 29 runs, three wickets – a bowler who has surprised all observers with his pace and immaculate control all season had saved his very best for the very last.
SOME years ago, I once watched a movie with my sister and her fidgety daughter, my niece, then aged four. It was one of those slow-burn “family dramas” that Malayalam cinema specializes in, and we were engrossed. My niece busied herself with a baby-sized Lego set I had gotten for her but every now and again she would get bored, try to get our attention and when it failed, pick up the remote and with the unerring peskiness of the very young, hit the fast forward button which, she had precociously discovered, made everything whizz along like a cartoon.
This day of Test cricket was a bit like that. There was an hour and a quarter of play this morning when Ravi Jadeja and Wriddhiman Saha batted with calm common sense and total control of their task, systematically wiping off the 52-run deficit India faced at the start of the day and inching India ahead. Saha was compact, competent, the ideal supporting act to the lead star.
Jadeja was that star, batting with superb skill and panache, alert to scoring opportunities, striking both pace and spin with equal authority, defending where he had to, leaving when he could. At one point, half the Australian team was in his ear and he had a grin for them all; when Wade talked at him as he was settling down into his stance, he went the hell with this, marched down to the straight umpire and asked him what the heck was going on. Wade tried it again, Jadeja pulled away, walked off towards square leg then walked back, had a little chat with the keeper. And then there was that passage of play where Cummins put the frighteners on him and Jadeja responded with those two fierce, combative hooks.
The two batted serenely on until Cummins took the stage – and then suddenly everything went whizzing by in a sort of exaggerated, cartoonishly quick version: edges flying everywhere, wickets tumbling anyhow, more impassioned chatter than in a Shakespearean play…
The extended first session saw India close its innings 32 ahead – a lead that seemed statistically insignificant at the time, but that was before Umesh Yadav got going, and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar won a personal battle against Steve Smith.
The Australian captain had started with a four off the first ball he faced (from Umesh Yadav), in the fourth over of the innings. He had then worked singles off both the opening overs as quick as he could, then watched from the other end as Yadav gave Renshaw a serious workout. And then, in the 9th over, he decided Bhuvi Kumar had to go. A pull off the first ball he faced in that over was little short of mind-bending – the ball was well outside off, around a fifth stump line; Smith glided across his stumps, changed the line completely, and hit it with authority behind square leg – an impossible shot by any batting logic. He then glided across his stumps and smacked the next one, bowled wider of the crease, behind point for another four.
Bhuvaneshwar Kumar then produced the wicket of the day – if not in quality, certainly in impact. Where other bowlers, after being creamed twice to the short length and line outside off, would have changed tack, he sent down one more. This was a bit shorter, it lifted more off the deck, it swung in after pitching and Smith, looking to replicate his pull off the first ball, dragged it back onto his stumps. When the Australian captain fell, Australia were still one run away from wiping out the deficit, and both captain and vice captain were back in the hut, with the other opener to follow just four balls later.
There was one innings of note, from Glenn Maxwell who showed, amidst that flurry of wickets tumbling, that it was possible to bat with authority and a degree of ease on this track. Either fully forward or back, Maxwell shone particularly when he stood tall on the back foot and drove, square and through the covers, off both pace and spin, his knock encrusted with six fours and a lovely lofted on drive for six off Kuldeep Yadav, whom he blasted out of the attack with that stroke and two crisp boundaries. Just when he looked capable of doing a Jadeja, though, he had a brain fade (that phrase, made famous by Smith in another context, has been the leitmotif of this series), pushing his pad out at Ashwin without offering a stroke, and being adjudged LBW twice, first by the on-field umpire and then by the third umpire on Maxwell’s referral.
Two things stood out about the Australian second innings, which lasted one ball less than 54 overs and produced a mere 137 runs. The first was the sustained aggression of the Indian bowlers, both pace and spin. Kuldeep was unlucky to run into Maxwell in red-hot form and commanding mood, but the other four gave nothing away. They attacked consistently and bowled with sustained venom, Ashwin proving to be the surprise package as he got his rhythm back and for the first time after Bangalore, bowled with all his old authority. At the other end, Jadeja was what he usually is – canny, controlled, constantly probing, finding ways past whoever he came up against. (On the day, he became only the third player, ever, to get 500-plus runs and 50-plus wickets in a season, a feat previously achieved by only Kapil Dev in the late ‘80s, and Mitchell Johnson in 2008-’09).
The other feature was the captaincy of Ajinkya Rahane. His bowling changes were spot on: he backed Kuldeep when the youngster was going for runs, he brought Ashwin on after the ball had softened enough for the offie’s liking and, when the lower order seemed likely to resist, resisted the temptation to go back to Kuldeep and switched Umesh on instead to trigger the final slide. And his field placings were if anything even more aggressive than his bowling changes, the highlight being his deployment of two gullies and two slips plus point for Smith, challenging the Australian captain outside the off stump and forcing him to play off to on in the search of runs. It was Smith’s efforts to combat that field and line of attack that led to his downfall, and while the wicket goes to Bhuvi Kumar’s name, the credit should really go to Rahane who, finally, outthought the Australian captain just when it mattered most.
India resumes on Tuesday with ten wickets in hand and 87 runs to get to wrest the Border-Gavaskar Trophy back from Australia. That the visitors still have a slim chance to pull this game out, that the series is still on the line heading into the fourth day of the final Test, is just one of the myriad reasons this Test series will go down as one for the ages.