This fascinating series is set up for an absorbing conclusion as Australia continued to battle hard on the second day of the Dharamsala Test. Going into this game with the series tied at 1-1, and with it being clear that the pitch would mean a positive result, things could not have been set up any better and these teams did not disappoint. The pitch in Ranchi had meant that neither side could push for a win, here it became clear that one team or another would win the Border-Gavaskar trophy out-right.
One of the more impressive things about India’s batting this season has been there ability to switch between batting to get themselves level with an opponent with a grinding approach, and their ability to accelerate and attack once they are in a position to press home that advantage.
Day two in Dharamsala was very much the former as they scored runs at a ponderous rate or just 2.5 runs an over for the first two sessions of the day. All too often people forget just how much time there is in Test cricket. You can afford to wear down the opposition bowlers, you can get yourself set. Often the best form of attack is to defend until you are able increase your scoring rate once firmly established against tired bowlers.
That is not to say that you never have to get a move on, and in the relatively recent past India have been guilty of keeping that patient approach going for too long. In the West Indies last year they had several chances to ruthlessly destroy a demoralised opponent and they didn’t take it. Across their home season they have been much more willing to be go for the jugular - just ask England.
That need to bat sensibly was further increased by the short batting lineup that India had for this Test. With Ravichandran Ashwin at six, as fine a batsman as he has been over the last two years, that increased the pressure on the top order. The absence of Virat Kohli would also have weighed on their minds. Yes, Kohli has been in terrible form for this series, but he still is an imposing presence at number four in this batting line up. Taking their time to reach parity with Australia was an entirely legitimate tactic, but that isn’t to say the execution was great.
Both KL Rahul and Cheteshwar Pujara made half centuries and then got out. Pujara didn’t do a huge amount wrong, caught at forward short leg when a ball turned more than he expected, but Rahul played the wrong shot to the wrong ball. Pat Cummins has been brutal with the short ball since he came back into the Australian side. His extra pace has made it a genuine wicket-taking ball, claiming three wickets with the bouncer in Ranchi. Rahul tried to hook a very fast ball that bounced above his head and he poked it into the covers to give Warner a simple catch.
If you are going to bat time you need to prevent the loss of wickets in clusters. India failed in that regard when three wickets fell for 59 runs either side of tea. Once India were 167 for four it was about creeping up to Australia’s first innings total. Perhaps more intent would have allowed them to get there quicker, but Australia bowled really well to make run scoring difficult and Pujara’s game is not about scoring quick runs, it is about crease occupation. Test cricket is five days long. Pujara can do that and still set up a win for his team.
There was an acceleration after tea as Ravichandran Ashwin looked to go after the Australian bowlers in a counter-attacking knock of 30 from 49 balls, but he lost his captain when Rahane was done by an excellent ball from Nathan Lyon and an even better catch from Steve Smith at first slip.
There was some talk about Lyon going wicketless for 75 overs after his brilliant first innings effort in Bengaluru where he claimed 8-50, but Lyon has been consistently good even when he hasn’t taken wickets. Here he was back giving Indian batsmen serious problems as the extra pace and bounce of this excellent pitch allowed him to pick up wickets.
Few would have expected Lyon to consistently out-bowl Ashwin in this series, but he has done just that. Despite the proficiency of this Indian batting line up against spin, Lyon has been able to take wickets and keep things tight almost every time that he has bowled. As good as his bowling was when he took 8 for 50 in the second Test, he was better than that on Sunday on a much better batting surface. He was able to beat both edges of the bat with natural variations rather than doing anything mysterious. There was a time when the demise of the traditional off spinner was widely predicted. People started to believe you need to turn the ball both ways to succeed at the highest level. The clampdown on bent elbows has seen “mystery” spinners disappear and the players like Lyon are showing that you can be a successful off-spinner if you have enough skill and guile. The last time visiting spinners did as well as Lyon and Steve O’Keefe in a Test series in India was when Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar played in 2012. England won that series…
India finished the day 52 runs behind Australia with four wickets in hand. They can still get parity with the visitors, and maybe even eek out a small lead. Either way this Test is set for an absolutely belting conclusion. The reason for that is because Australia have been very good yet again.