The deciding Test match of this fascinating series between Australia and India got underway in Dharamsala, and once again Australia were competing furiously. It is difficult to understate just how impressive that is. This Indian team had been winning Tests for fun in home conditions, until Australia arrived. Every session that India has won has been a struggle, let alone their one Test match victory in this series. Australia had been awful in Asia for years, until they arrived in India for this series and hit the ground running. Day 1 of the Dharamsala Test was one of the visitor’s worst days in the series, but they are still in with a chance.
Even when five wickets fell in the middle session of the first day of this Test, Australia were fighting. Other teams have been caught in the thrall of India’s spinners and have just rolled over and offered their tummies for a tickling. Not this Australia team. They are clearly hurt by their previous failings in Asian conditions and are determined to put things right. Even as a young spinner had a dream debut, Australia still kept themselves in the contest, albeit now chasing India rather than setting the pace. The autopsy of this series can wait until the result is known, but win or lose, Australia have done so much better than expected.
Steve Smith won the toss and elected to bat on a very good surface in Dharamsala. It had far more pace and carry than in Ranchi, and that allowed for more expressive strokeplay from the Australians. They lost Matt Renshaw early, but the first ever century stand between Smith and David Warner allowed the visitors to get off to a flyer.
Warner’s record outside Australia is pretty suspect. In Asia it is down right poor. He has played 13 Tests in Asia and averages 31.36. Compare that to his returns at home where he averages 59.21 and that is an area for concern for Australia. On the first day in Dharamsala he made 56, but he was dropped first ball of the match off Bhuvneshwar Kumar by Karun Nair. It wasn’t an easy chance, but it was one that should have been taken. That record in Asia could have been even worse, but even an out-of-form Warner who isn’t great in these conditions is not someone you should put down.
Australia batted pretty well, but India bowled really badly in the first session. Having got Smith to the middle early, they then proceeded to play him in, bowling various lines and lengths that allowed him to get set. Once Smith is in, runs become a natural extension of his stay at the crease. You would never say that Smith makes batting look easy, but scoring runs is not hard for him. He shuffles around in the crease allowing himself even more chance to hit the gaps. You need a plan against Smith, it just seems that no team has worked out what that is. Meanwhile his Test average creeps up. It is in the 60s right now, in his 54th Test.
Australia headed to lunch at 131 for one, and looking in complete control of this Test. Warner had built a platform from which he could attack, and Smith was heading inexorably towards his 20th Test hundred. Then the two Yadavs in this side, Umesh and debutant Kuldeep, reduced Australia to 178 for four in the first hour after lunch as India finally started looking like the team that had beaten New Zealand, England and Bangladesh this season.
Umesh has been the most improved Indian player by a distance over this long home season. He has played 12 of the 13 Tests and has taken 27 wickets at an average of 38.96. Those aren’t the sort figures that make you all fuzzy inside, but he has been an automatic selection for this team and taken wickets while keeping things tight. When he gets to play on surfaces that have more in them for seamers he should be a serious threat.
And then there was Kuldeep. Picked for this team to replace the injured Virat Kohli with India selecting an extra bowler in the hope of pushing for a series win, the pressure on the young man was huge. The thinking going into this Test was that the Dharamsala track would favour the seam bowlers, but it was a debutant left-arm wrist spinner that did the damage. The 22-year-old finished the day with figures of 4 for 68, with the highlight of his spell when he completely stitched up Glenn Maxwell with a googly.
The difference between India before lunch and the team that emerged after was remarkable. In the morning session they looked rudderless and missing the inspiration of the injured Kohli. After, they were all over Australia and looked like they could have picked up a wicket every ball.
Ravichandran Ashwin has been off the boil for so long in this series that he seems unable to get on a hot streak again, but it was him that took the wicket of Steve Smith for 111 just before tea as India pinned Australia back with five wickets for 77 runs in the afternoon session. When Smith went Australia were 208 for six, but they did not give up.
Ashwin continued after the tea break, as stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane backed his most experienced spinner against the tailenders. Ashwin is rapidly approaching 300 Test wickets, he has taken a world record 79 wickets in this home season, but it was the kid on debut that had looked more threatening.
When Kuldeep was finally brought back into the attack, Matthew Wade and Pat Cummins had been batting together for 10 overs and were starting to look comfortable. It is perhaps understandable that captains will go to the bowlers who have succeeded in the past rather than ones new to the side, but it isn’t a decision that is based on all the available evidence. As great as Ashwin has been for India over his career, in Dharamsala on Saturday Kuldeep was bowling better.
Sure enough, as soon as Kuldeep was back bowling he picked up the wicket of Cummins who misread a googly and gave a sharp catch to the bowler.
Matthew Wade’s 4th Test half-century was vital to Australia getting close to a competitive total, and his fight was also impressive. No batsman seemed to read the variations of Kuldeep as well as Wade as he marshalled the tail. But for him Australia could well have been all out for 220. The Australia of previous visits to India wouldn’t have made it that far.
This Dharamsala pitch is just perfect for Test cricket. Batsmen can score runs if they apply themselves, seamers can get something when the ball is hard, the spinners can get turn, but not too much turn. The final Test of this series is set up for a brilliant finish. Australia will be concerned they don’t have enough runs, but they have at least batted long enough to make India work for a win.
Australia’s 300 all out is probably about 100 fewer than they need, but they are not completely out of this Test or this series. No one really expected that going into the final match of the series. With India’s short batting line up Australia will back themselves to find a way to win from here.