After the debacle at Pune, and the rip-roaring comeback at Bengaluru, it appeared that the Indian juggernaut that had steamrollered its opponents this home Test season was back on track. When Australia posted a massive 451 in their first innings at Ranchi, India, guided by the able and steady hands of Cheteshwar Pujara, overhauled it and thanks to the lower order resistance of Wriddhiman Saha and Ravindra Jadeja, even amassed a lead in excess of 150 runs.
There surely were visions of England last year scoring 400+ runs totals at Mumbai and Chennai only to lose by an innings, both times. When Jadeja burst one out of the rough to get through David Warner and cleaned up the nightwatchman Nathan Lyon on the fourth evening with Australia still nearly 130 runs behind, no one would have been faulted for assuming that at the end of day five, India would be sitting on a pretty 2-1 lead. But it wasn't to be.
The last time Australia batted more than 100 overs in the second innings, in India, was during the epic 'final frontier' breaching tour of 2004. Since then, in the 14 Tests they have played in India, they have been bowled out in the second innings 11 times. At the Jharkhand State Cricket Association Stadium in Ranchi, they batted through 100 overs losing just six wickets and thwarting India from securing the series lead.
It is incredibly hard to resist India when their spinners have been staked a first innings lead. The last time a visiting team gave up a first innings lead of more than 150 runs, in India, and survived to tell the tale was back in 2008, when England came calling on the back of the terrorist attack in Mumbai. By accomplishing the near impossible, Australia also became only one of the seven teams that batted out more than 75 overs on the final day of Test in India after conceding a first innings lead. Considering the historic nature of the stalemate forced by the Australians, it might actually be true when Steve Smith said that it will be the Indians who will be 'hurting' after this draw, when a win for the home team appeared the most likely outcome when day four ended.
Perhaps it was the long home season — this is after all the twelfth Test on the trot for the Indians — and the spinning fingers are getting tired and calloused. Perhaps, those tiring fingers were not able to coax more turn and threat out of the softening SG ball on the Ranchi track. Perhaps, there was not as much wear and tear in this pitch as you would typically expect on a fifth day wicket in India. Perhaps, the injury to Mitchell Starc meant that Ravichandran Ashwin did not have readymade footmarks outside the offstump of right handed batsmen created by the left arm pacer. Perhaps, Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb pulled out one of the greatest rearguard action of all time, in line with the South Africans in Adelaide 2012 or England in Auckland the next year. Perhaps, Virat Kohli did not go to Ashwin on Day five with a harder SG ball earlier than just before the stroke of lunch. Perhaps India's idea of having pacers bowl wide outside off for nearly a session from one end was not the right way to go on the last day of the Test. So many what ifs but none of which can take away from the incredible Aussie escape, and marathon Pujara innings that slowly, but steadily, put India in the position of ascendancy in the first place.
In 2012, India faced England at Nagpur on a pitch that was not too dissimilar for the fourth Test of the series. India needed to win the Test to even the series. The pitch at Jamtha was ridiculed for lacking any pace and turn, and it was basically clay molasses. Strokemaking was not the easiest and so run scoring was hard; The scoring rate of both teams for the entire Test was under 2.3 runs per over. This was perfect for England but frustrated India as they needed to make all the running to square the series 2-2. On that pitch, if a batsman was not keen on playing attacking strokes, it was going to take superhuman effort from the bowlers to pry him out. Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott blocked their way for a combined 102.4 overs of the 154 that England faced in the second innings and shut India out, and allowing England to register a series win in India for the first time in 28 years.
At Ranchi, with no real threat for the right handers from Ashwin, and the ball misbehaving only on odd occasions from the rough for the left handers while facing Jadeja, it needed superhuman effort from the Indian bowlers to winkle out 10 Aussie second innings wickets. In the end, they could only manage six. In all, India took 16 Australian wickets in 237.4 overs and Australia managed nine Indian wickets in 210 overs. Considering only 19 wickets fell in 337.4 overs across the two first innings, it would have been silly to expect India to run through Australia, if the track stayed relatively true. And that exactly is what happened. Handscomb and Marsh absorbed more than 66 overs between themselves, and did not look to play too many aggressive strokes that would have put their wickets in jeopardy. According to ESPNcricinfo, Handscomb was in control on 94% of the 200 deliveries he faced, and Marsh on 87% of the 197 balls he faced. Contrary to all the conspiracy theories floated by the cricket media ahead of the Test match, the pitch stayed true, and frustratingly, benign. It is a shame that the challenging track at Bengaluru, that produced a result in four full days of action was declared “below average” by the match referee and the pitch at Ranchi will probably not attract any scorn at all.
India might feel slightly down that they could not close the deal but they ought to be buoyed by their first innings performance — even without any significant contribution from Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane — in Ranchi, and Australia would, of course, be overjoyed with the draw. All that does is to set the final Test of the series at Dharamsala to be a humdinger with everything to play for.