India vs Australia: Nathan Lyon's riveting spell ensures neither team has sizeable advantage
India go into the third day still 52 behind, and with Jadeja and Saha squaring up to the new ball in the hands of a blazingly-quick bowler whose bouncers detonate off the wicket and threaten life and limb.
Australia off-spinner Nathan Lyon claimed four wickets in the final session to halt India's progress and help restrict the hosts to 248 for six on the second day of the fourth and final test at Dharamsala. Here's a few talking points from Sunday's play:
1. India dominated first two sessions
On balance, India took the first two sessions and Australia the third. You could say India were ahead overall — but it is not so much these notional wins of individual sessions, but more about what actually happens in the course of each two-hour span. India did well in the pre-lunch period — just 64 runs came off it in 27 overs for the loss of Murali Vijay, but if the home side’s intent was to bat deep and long, then KL Rahul and Cheteswar Pujara played it just right. The second session, if anything, favoured India even more — 89 runs came for the loss of Rahul, and despite a crazy start to his innings from the captain, Ajinkya Rahane, he had by tea time settled down nicely and Pujara was in that zone of his where nothing seemed to matter and from where he just continued where he had left off in Ranchi.
As the players walked out for the final session, any logical prediction would have been for a hard grind ahead for the Aussies. The quicks had been doing overtime (at tea time they had bowled more than half the overs sent down) and would be tiring; the two spinners were tight, but never seemed to find the sort of bounce and turn that threatened the batsmen. With the ball softening, possibilities were that the final session would see India consolidate, whittle away the Australian total and put itself in a position to dominate.
And then it all went upside down. Pujara had a momentary lapse in concentration in the first over of the session, Lyon got the wicket and at that point, seemed to have dived into a telephone booth and come back out in Superman costume. The ball began to do everything — dipped in the air foxing batsmen’s read of length, bounced at times almost like a tennis ball, turned almost square when the bowler decided to rip it, and from the pedestrian he was in the morning and afternoon, he suddenly became unplayable. Rahane, Karun Nair and Ravichandran Ashwin in succession were defeated by an off-spinner producing a display of complete mastery, on the same wicket where the previous day, his higher-ranked Indian counterpart had failed to find anything.
That frenetic final session produced 95 runs for four wickets; it could have been five if Matt Renshaw had in the final over managed to hold a fairly regulation catch, off Wriddhiman Saha’s outside edge, to the tireless Pat Cummins bowling his first over with the second new ball.
2. India tired bowlers out in morning session
Short-form cricket has conditioned us to think in terms of runs, wickets, batting and bowling strengths and capabilities. But equally, it has made us forget how to think time — a mental gap that is underlined by the real time narratives accompanying sessions like the pre-lunch period this morning.
Some figures for context: 27 overs were bowled. 64 runs were scored for the loss of Murali Vijay’s wicket. And 146 of the 162 deliveries sent down were not scored of.
Um, well, not good, India not able to get away, seemed to be the consensus among the commentariat, but what that ignored is equations around time. At start of play, there were 360 overs left to play; four days of playing time. Australia, in getting bundled out inside one day for just 300, had opened a door for the home side — India could afford to bat time, grind the bowling down, and still have plenty of time and overs in hand to press hard in the third innings.
Related points about how India batted this morning: Josh Hazlewood had to bowl an extended seven-over spell in one stretch. Cummins, just into his second international innings as a bowler on his comeback from injury, bowled 10 overs this morning. The two quicks thus bowled 17 off 27 overs bowled in the first session — fair enough since it was the new ball and Australia needs wickets, but that is a heavy workload, and there are two full sessions to go.
There was a tendency to compare India’s first session with the corresponding Australian one on day one, when Steve Smith and David Warner bullied the bowlers at a rate hovering around the five-an-over mark. But that omits taking into account the fact that India bowled badly as a unit in that first session, caught appallingly, and fielded in shambolic fashion. A better comparison would be with the second session — 29 overs, just 77 runs. Sure, regular fall of wickets had something to do with it, but consider that Smith, batting like a dream in the morning, was reduced to defending grimly in the afternoon session.
I thought India handled the opening session just perfectly. They left an incredible amount of balls, which when you think of it is in sum a lot of wasted energy on the part of the bowlers.
3. Josh Hazlewood-Murali Vijay duel
One of the joys of watching Test cricket comes when a good fast bowler and a good batsman play out a prolonged duel for supremacy. One such was the feature of the morning session, when Hazlewood and Vijay went at it.
Numbers provide context: Hazlewood bowled 25 deliveries to Vijay; the batsman either let go or defended to 22 of those, got two fours, and lost his wicket. It is the how of it that was fascinating. Hazlewood worked to a plan with involved getting Vijay defending with bat beside, not behind, the body around the off stump. To do that, he had to do several things all at once: He had to nail the landing at just short of good length; the line had to be spot on between off stump and fourth stump; the lift off the deck and the line in combination had to force the batsman to play rather than leave; there had to be just enough bounce to take the bat on the high part in order for the edge to carry.
Hazlewood kept trying. When the line was marginally off, towards 4th and 5th stumps, Vijay left. When the bounce was higher, Vijay left. When the length erred and was fuller, Vijay covered it and defended, or drove.
It was a game of fractions, of minute adjustments on the part of the bowler and late adjustments on the part of the batsman. On one occasion Hazlewood got everything except the length right, Vijay pushed in defence and was lucky the ball, bouncing more than he thought it would off better than good length, fell short of the diving Warner at mid-off. The bowler forced the edge again, but this time everything was right except the bounce, which was not relatively lower — Vijay played the push the bowler wanted, the late movement found the edge as planned, but the ball fell short of the wicket keeper. On one occasion Hazelwood got all the various ducks perfectly aligned, and the ball proved too good for the batsman, beating his edge by a whisker.
And then, finally, it all came together: the bowler just wide enough of the crease to create the illusion of angle; the length perfect on that spot behind the good length area; the bounce sharp; the movement away off the seam late — the combination dragged Vijay sideways in his defence, squared him up just enough, took the edge, and went hip high to the keeper.
The battle took a little over one hour of playing time and it was beautiful to watch, a slow-burn set piece tucked inside a much larger narrative.
4. Cheteshwar Pujara's focused batting
The bubble Pujara encases himself in when he is batting is a subject worth serious scientific study. It seems to extend just high enough above his head to permit him to go up to play bouncers down; on the sides it is just an inch or so wider than the set of stumps he sets his stall in front of. Nothing pierces it except the ball — not the close-in fielders, not the occasionally lippy bowlers and chatty close-in fielders, not the edginess of his companions at the other end — just him in that bubble, into which the ball occasionally intrudes and is promptly repelled, either defensively or aggressively as he deems fit.
Only occasionally, he seems to notice something happening at the other end — like with his captain Rahane, who got off the blocks like a scalded cat with a hook, then a top-edged hook that could have gone to hand but flew behind the bowler’s head for six instead, then some ill-judged swipes…
Pujara briefly put his bubble aside, waved his partner over for a long chat, as he had done with Saha in Ranchi, then got back in his bubble and decided he would face the dangerous Cummins for a bit and allow his partner to settle down. But such occasions, when he seems conscious of play outside of his own bubble, are rare — he seems to see neither his batting partner, nor the opposition, nor the scoreboard. Just his own personal, private space and the occasional ball he deals with minimal fuss.
They talk of how the Indians haven’t been able to find a way past Smith; the same is equally true of the Aussies and Pujara. To most other batsmen, you can at least dry up runs and hope the pressure will tempt the batsman into doing something stupid; with Pujara, a man willing and able to just bat on irrespective, even that seems to make no difference.
Maybe the answer is to take more tea breaks? Because a batsman known for his ability to switch on after breaks lost it here. In the first over after tea, he came skipping down at Lyon, as he had many times before; he didn’t quite get to the pitch of the ball, having been deceived in flight, but that had happened before too and Pujara had shown the ability to adjust. Here, he froze — and the ball landed, bounced, took the inside edge of bat onto pad and popped up on the onside for the reliable Peter Handscomb to hold on the dive to his left.
5. KL Rahul's Concentration Deficit Syndrome
Rahul, the story goes, got a shelling from his batting coach Sanjay Bangar in Bangalore, when in the first innings he threw it away after looking set for a big one. Since then, he has applied himself religiously, never so much as here — through the first session, and through a large part of his stay in the second, he left beautifully to even the least width; he swayed gracefully out of the way of bouncers aimed at his body and on the odd occasion he played, rode the bounce perfectly to play the ball down. And when the bowlers erred, even marginally, he cashed in with authority, playing shots on both sides of the wicket with strokes of the highest class.
He had eased into his sixties and again, seemed set to bat on endlessly when the Concentration Deficit Syndrome kicked in. A frustrated Cummins had something to say to him after one leave too many, Rahul got into it with smiles and a quiet word or three and when the quick, predictably, bounced him again the next ball, he lost his focus and aimed a hook at a ball climbing steeply outside his off — a shot someone of his class should have known better than to try. All he managed was to get the toe of the bat to the ball and spear it up for David Warner at mid-off to hold with ease.
6. Karun Nair's unimpressive cameo
Nair continues to find out, the hard way, that Test cricket is the hardest gig there is. A triple century in just his third innings must have had him reckoning this was easy, but since then he has been making unimpressive cameo appearances, none more so than here — where he seemed transfixed by Lyon, rabbit in headlights fashion. He just stood there on top of his crease, moving neither forward nor back, and watched while Lyon bounced one, turned it onto his glove as he made no move to either defend or get out of the way, onto the pad, and the keeper came around and took it out of short leg’s hands. The dismissal was particularly egregious because with India a batsman short, his role as buffer between Rahane at number four and the lower order was particularly crucial.
7. Nathan Lyon's off-spinning heroics
Ashwin, in the first innings, broke a long-standing record for most wickets taken in a season, but it is Lyon who has been running away with the off-spinning honours in this series. His dismissals on Sunday were works of art, barring the Pujara one where the batsman contributed to his own downfall. The Nair dismissal, referred to earlier, owed to the panic he had created in the batsman with a series of deliveries that turned and bounced to varying degrees, missing inner and outer edges in turn and scrambling the batsman’s mind.
The delivery that took out Rahane was the best of the lot — beautifully floated from over the wicket just outside off, kicking off length, forcing the defensive push and finding the outside edge of the high part of the bat. Smith took a catch that was the mirror image of the one Rahane had taken to dismiss the Australian captain, off Ashwin, in the first innings. And against Ashwin, who was handling his bounce and turn easily thanks to his long reach and use of the crease, Lyon set him up nicely by bowling to the pattern, then bowling the surprise ball fuller in length, closer to off and turning sharply to defeat the defence and find the pad — a dismissal of immaculate conception and perfect execution.
So much for the game today. India go into the third day still 52 behind, and with Ravindra Jadeja and Saha squaring up to the new ball in the hands of a blazingly-quick bowler whose bouncers detonate off the wicket and threaten life and limb. Left in the hut are Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep and Umesh Yadav, who in the accepted parlance can “all bat a bit”. But the prospect of India batting big enough to need to bat only once in this Test is buried now, and the best outcome the home team can look for is that at the end of the first innings of either side, the game will remain in an equipoise, neither team having a sizeable advantage over the other.
But then, there is always this: India have to bat last here. And there is Lyon waiting.
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