Defiant and gritty half-centuries from Peter Handscomb and Shaun Marsh led Australia to the safety of a draw in Ranchi to leave the series poised tantalisingly at 1-1 heading into the fourth and final Test in Dharamsala.
In a hard-fought Test match, where momentum swung from one side to another on the back of stoic batting from both sides, it was Australia’s third innings defiance that saved a match recent history suggested they had no right doing so.
The third Test in Ranchi seemed to be following a familiar script for India, even though they lost the toss and conceded 451 in the first innings they responded with 603 of their own on the back of a Cheteshwar Pujara epic and Wriddhiman Saha’s best Test innings to date. Then, with eight overs to bowl on the fourth evening, spin wizards Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin were handed the ball. Jadeja plucked out two Australian wickets before the close, dismantling the stumps of both the dangerous David Warner, and nightwatchman Nathan Lyon.
Everything was set for India’s spinners to run through Australia’s batting lineup on day five in much the same way Sri Lanka had less than a year ago during Australia’s last trip to sub-continent shores. After some early resistance from the impressive Matt Renshaw and captain Steve Smith, of whom no less was expected, India finally managed to breakthrough when a fired up Ishant Sharma trapped Renshaw LBW.
When Smith — the one man who has constantly been a thorn in India’s side — misjudged a turning delivery from Jadeja and was bowled, India were well on top and it felt like only a matter of time until India wrapped up the innings and the match.
Enter Handscomb, in just his sixth Test, and the much maligned Marsh. Never have the pair formed a more important partnership, and they both played their most important innings at a time when their team needed them to stand up and save not only the match, but in all likeliness the series as well.
An Indian victory in Ranchi would have seen Kohli’s men take almost unstoppable momentum, especially considering how they fought back from conceding 451 in the first innings, into the series finale in Dharamsala. Instead, Marsh and Handscomb’s grit, determination, and skill to safely negotiate India’s attack has given the visitors the upper hand in the series.
After India had taken a lead of over 150 runs, before reducing Australia to 63/4, still 89 runs away from making India bat again, anything but an Indian victory seemed unlikely. A draw for Australia is as good as a win, and it will leave what already looks like a tired Indian team extremely frustrated. This Indian side has got accustomed to winning, and winning comfortable from those positions of dominance in this elongated home season.
This time they were denied by two plucky Australians who had been picked for this tour based on a reputation for being good players of spin bowling. Marsh, in particular, was picked in the touring party on the back of an impressive record in Asia and a reputation for playing spin bowling well. He then took Usman Khawaja’s spot in the playing XI thanks to a combination of his reputation and Khawaja’s of being a poor player of slow bowling.
During Marsh’s stop-start Test career no one has ever doubted the West Australian’s talent, but his tendency of finding ways to get out, or get injured when he was displaying good form, infuriated Australian supporters to the point they asked why he was given chance after chance in the side ahead of the likes of Khawaja.
On the fifth day in Ranchi, Marsh showed just why he has been shown so much faith by the Australian selectors and team management in a gritty and defiant 197-ball effort at the crease. The fact he scored 53 runs was almost a bonus, it was the time he consumed at the crease, the pressure he absorbed, and the way he skilfully wore down India’s bowlers that helped lead Australia to a hard fought draw alongside Handscomb.
The Australian pair were not phased when they were beaten by the turning ball, and remained strong in defence. Neither Marsh nor Handscomb allowed loose balls to go unpunished either, and as the day dragged on for India they got their fair share from a tiring Indian attack. In particular, Ravichandran Ashwin’s threat was diminished as he showed clear signs of fatigue and the effects of a long season.
Australia’s back-to-the-wall defence on day five will fill the side with plenty of confidence that they can weather the storm and fight it out in India. The manner in which they fought to draw this match was more impressive than their emphatic victory in the first Test. Where the Pune pitch turned that match into a near lottery, the Ranchi wicket required tough attritional cricket and a lot of resilience to fight back from unfavourable positions in the game. Australia managed to do that, and it could be telling in determining where the Border-Gavaskar Trophy goes after Dharamsala.