Six hundred and seventy-seven runs and 22 wickets in 360 overs over four days; eight of the first 20 wickets to those quick bowlers who were at peak levels of skill; control of the game shifting from one team to another at least once every day, often once per session — the first four days are a template for what Test cricket at its best is supposed to be about.
If pitches could sue for libel, the JSCA would get millions without the jury leaving the box. “Rolled mud”? “Nothing like we have ever seen before”? Really?
The final day begins with one result — the draw — possible; another — an Indian win — probable. And odd as it may seem, Australia’s fate is entirely in its own hands — not in the pitch, not with the Indian bowlers and, while we are on the subject, not in the vagaries of DRS reviews that seem to be dominating conversations to an unwarranted degree.
The pitch is what it is. There are spots, outside the right-hander’s off stump at one end, where the ball from the quicker bowlers occasionally scoots through at ankle height. Cheteshwar Pujara in particular showed why they are a risk only if you push, heavy handed, away from your body where you don’t have to — he never did, and he was untroubled; Wriddhiman Saha occasionally did, and had narrow escapes.
There is a rough outside the left-hander’s off stump slightly short of good length, and from there the ball will turn, it will bounce, and both will be pronounced. Batsmen playing the first line will be found out. You can expect Ravindra Jadeja to wheel away into that rough, and each over of his will cause problems. You can’t leave too many, because he is looking to hit the top of off and middle and the LBW is in play; you can’t push too hard because from that same spot, he will make the odd one go through straight and that will put the outside edge in play. But then, no one said Test batting on a day five track is easy.
On the evening of day four, David Warner batted like a smash-and-grab artist trying to grab all he could before the cops got there and put the handcuffs on — a training video of how not to bat on this wicket. And earlier in the day, Pujara and Saha showed you how to bat on this wicket — by being aware of the trouble spots but not being intimidated by them. Both read lines and lengths quickly out of the hand, had their responses ready for when the ball was on or around hotspots, both were very decisive on playing fully forward or back and used the depth of the crease to perfection, and in general they played without being constantly on tenterhooks — which is to say, they played each ball the way it came to them; they did not play history, nor did they fashion ghosts out of other people’s fears.
Yes, both those batsmen were right-handers; the rough was outside the leg stump and less challenging than it would be for left handers — you think? It was just a different challenge, is all — here, the risk lay in the left-arm spinner drifting the ball across you, hitting that rough, then turning the ball sharply back across you the other way with bounce. It is not easy — you can’t play down the first, second or even third lines. Imagine an object making a rapid V shape across your line of sight, first away towards your blind side, then back the other way, and figure out at which point to make contact to understand how hard it is. Coping called for a great amount of skill — Pujara and Saha made it look easy when in fact it wasn’t. Besides, there is always the example of Jadeja, a left-hander, who scored a run a ball 50 and coped just fine with that exact same rough.
As India gradually wrested control in the second half of day four, I heard considerable reading of old, mouldy tea leaves. Australia has won only once when scoring above 400 in the first innings against four losses, I heard. Remember Sri Lanka when pretty much this same lot collapsed in just 33 overs under the pressure of batting last? — another line.
“My life,” the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, “has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.” As true for batsmen as for philosophers, that in the second innings in Bangalore and during the eight overs late on Sunday, the Aussies have been battling the ghosts of their own fatalistic imaginations.
The only lesson they need is contained in the Pujara-Saha masterclass. It was not that they batted in harness for 77.4 overs. Not that they began with India 123 in deficit and ended with the team 76 ahead. It was that they only played one ball at a time, all the time. They didn’t try to force-fit their batting to larger plans — they just worked on recognition that they only had to negotiate that one ball in each moment, bringing all their skills and focus to bear, and that if they did that, the moments would add up and the game would bend to their will.
If the Aussies focus on the one ball they have to face at the time, they can still pull a draw out of this. If they bat as if they were playing Russian roulette with all six chambers loaded, they will go down — and the bowlers, the close cordon and the pitch will be enablers only, not the primary causes.
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