India vs Australia: Ranchi match should be preserved in aspic as a reminder of Test cricket's charm
Someone should preserve this India-Australia game in aspic – and point to it every time the old cry of Test cricket losing its charm is heard. Or maybe that is just the Test tragic in me.
Ravindra Jadeja is a born hustler. In a different lifetime, he could well have been a pickpocket in the Apollo Robbins class. Past-life karma ordained that he be born as the Artful Dodger of international cricket.
There was magic and misdirection in the way he took out the Australia captain. Steve Smith had gone 420 deliveries in this game without the Indians ever finding a way past, and his first 67 balls this morning seemed a mere extension of his unbeaten 361-ball first innings.
Jadeja bowled 25 deliveries to Smith that handcuffed him to the top of the crease -- Smith managed just one across those deliveries.
It was call and response at its best: I’m coming at you over the wicket, landing in the rough and turning into your middle stump, what you gonna do? Oh, pad-play Pujara style? Around the wicket, then, a bit wide on the crease to accentuate the drift I get across you, onto your middle stump, with the ball bouncing and turning back across. Remember Pat Cummins in the first innings, remember Lyon last evening? Okay, you cover the stumps and shrug off the ball spinning past your edge? Interesting – I’ll go back over the wicket, into the rough, onto the pad, and if you want to keep doing that, let’s try you there again, and again, and again…
Jadeja grooved Smith into that automatic response, pad thrust a long way down, bat kept well out of the line. And then he picked Smith’s pocket with one that he held back just that little bit in length. Out came Smith’s pad by rote; he hadn’t read the alteration. The ball landed just far enough in front of the pad to allow the turn to take it past the defence and across the bemused batsman who stood there with his bat high, watching the ball knock his off stump out of the ground.
“Brain fade”, I heard on Twitter and in the commentary box – a characterisation as unfair on the batsman as it was on the bowler. Smith was beaten in the mind and on technique; he was asked a question he had no answer for, after he had spent 427 previous balls in this test acing every possible question the bowlers and the wicket could throw at him.
For his part, Jadeja might have taken that wicket with the 25th ball he bowled to the Aussie skipper, but he had spent the previous 24 in this innings probing with surgical skill, pulling and tugging at Smith’s technique, opening up tiny chinks in the armour and finally finding the way to cut to the heart.
That wicket – arguably the one India prizes most given Smith has been the one batsman with the demonstrated capability of batting time to a standstill – came two balls after another of the little stories Test cricket is so rich in.
Ishant Sharma was bowling. It was the fifth over of a spell that, while being tight, was nowhere close to being incisive – so much so, the commentators were vociferously calling for Ravi Ashwin, then vegetating in the outfield, to come in and finish things so we could all go home.
Ishant ran in for his first ball, and was into his delivery when Matt Renshaw pulled away, pointing at something around the sightscreen. A visibly frustrated bowler continued into his follow through and slammed the ball along the ground to the wicket-keeper, then exchanged a couple of words with the smiling Renshaw, more with Smith at the other end. The Indians got into it a bit as well, the umpires brought out their extinguishers, but the incident was the lighted match to the gas Ishant is always so full off.
Goran Ivanisevic once said there are many Gorans – a good Goran, a bad Goran, and shades in between. Ishant is just two Ishants – the gentle Ishant and the angry version. Here he made the switch to angry. There was pace, there was direction and there was searing bounce, hammering Renshaw back in his crease, hitting him on one occasion on the hip and then onto the chin.
Renshaw, till then comfortable coming forward as his trigger movement, was finally rattled. The unfailing smiles finally dried up, and Ishant helped things along, following through almost to the other end, cutting loose with the lip and with an eye that seemed to shoot sparks. And then he produced the wicket ball – very full, late reverse, top pace to beat Renshaw’s tentative defence and find the pad. It harked back to the Karun Nair incident earlier in the game, when the batsman irritated Hazlewood who was at the time going through the motions, and ended up getting bouncers and then the wicket ball.
Makes you wonder, though – why do you need an external irritant to find that spark, to fuel your inner flame? Cricketers are strange animals.
And so are cricket fans. Throughout the post-lunch session, my phone repeatedly pinged with messages from the family WhatsApp group, with SMS-es from friends, all saying the same thing – India is bowling badly, India is letting the game slip away, India sucks.
This was the exact same time of day, and period of play, when just 24 hours earlier Wriddhiman Saha and Chetaswar Pujara were fully in consolidation mode, resisting everything from the searing pace of Cummins to the relentless accuracy of O’Keefe, playing the ball on merit, playing Test cricket at its best. A day later, two opposition batsmen did to us what we had done unto them, and it became all about “bad bowling”. Cricketers and their fans deserve each other, pretty much.
This is what I wrote before play began this morning:
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.
And that is what happened. Shaun Marsh got to the crease three deliveries and four minutes ahead of Peter Handscomb. Two big wickets in four balls understandably put them on edge – their feet stuttered, their mind was cluttered, their bats had somehow developed edges bigger than the middle. But they hung on. And they gritted it out one ball at a time. And as time wore on, their sight improved, their feet began to move easier, their minds settled – and they played out one ball, and then another, and another…
It was rope a dope cricket. Handscomb used his quick feet to go repeatedly down the wicket, in passive-aggressive style. The initial intent was to defend, but if during his shimmy he realized that he was to the pitch and in control, he extended his defense into authoritative pushes and drives on either side of the wicket as the lines dictated. Shaun Marsh in contrast stayed relatively crease bound, using both width and depth of the crease to get the ball below his eye-line, defending as tightly as a Pujara had done the previous afternoon. He had clearly settled down to the task of batting through, and his rock solid play permitted his younger partner at the other end the freedom to express himself a bit more freely, the contrast visible in their respective strike rates. Handscomb got his 50 off 136 balls, Marsh much later off a monumental 191 deliveries.
Together the two saw off the crucial middle session, whittled the lead down to where India was just three ahead in the final session of the Test, and with that performance spanning 374 balls that produced 124 runs, the senior pro and the tyro got Australia the lifeline it needed.
In situations such as this, with India leading on the first innings and with the opposition on a fifth day track, the narrative calls for spinners to rip through batting sides, seal easy wins to much cheering. When it does not happen, we feel cheated, and look for easy outs -- Ashwin wasn't penetrative, something is wrong with him, Jadeja couldn't replicate his earlier heroics, the quicks were not as good as Cummins, no shock value... something, anything.
It was none of those things. The bowlers bowled, barring a brief period, with penetration throughout, they tried their hearts out all day. They just came up against two batsmen who had not just their heads but also their hearts in the game, and who brought every skill they had to bear on one single task: survival.
This Test deserved this final day. Right from the start, it has been about individuals standing up, battling against the odds, succeeding in despite of it, from Smith’s first innings obduracy to Jadeja’s irrepressibility, through Pujara’s immeasurable calm and Saha’s iron determination in the face of Cummins’ enormous heart and O’Keefe’s tireless, relentless skill, all the way through to the Marsh-Handscomb rearguard. That this last day produced just 181 runs in the course of 92 overs is merely the handiest measure of the hard, gritty, no quarters asked and none given nature of play.
The last half hour produced what for me was the finest narrative of this game. By then Australia was ahead on runs, and had wickets standing. The commentators were already talking of the two teams shaking hands and calling off play as soon as five of the mandatory 15 overs of the final hour were bowled – but Kohli and his team thought otherwise.
There was no let up, no lessening of the urgency. The tireless Jadeja, who ended with 54 runs conceded in 44 overs for four wickets, finally found a way past Marsh, making the second new ball bounce that much higher, find the top part of the batsman’s defensive bat where till then the older and softer ball was finding the middle, and took him out. First innings centurion Glenn Maxwell came up, the Indians upped their game, and Ashwin after a series of close calls took him out, bat pad, refusing to give him an easy passage to the next Test.
They used two short covers besides slip and silly point at Handscomb, making him work for every run. They throttled Matthew Wade, four fielders surrounding him like bars on a prison cage. The umpires kept asking Kohli when he was going to call things off, and the Indian captain and his mates kept shaking their heads at the end of every over and dashed off to the other end to try another one.
There was no way for them to win. “Why are they doing this?” Sunil Gavaskar asked in the commentary box. “They must be tired by now.” Ravi Shastri, Sunny’s Test mate and former team coach, endorsed that view.
But they weren’t tired. As long as the game was on, they wanted to play. And as long as they were playing, they wanted the intensity right up there – nothing, they seemed to be saying in the way they approached those final few minutes, is easy against us.
It was brilliant to watch, and when Kohli did call it off, it was because he had to. There were just two overs left in the day; a changeover of innings takes those out of the equation, so finally the Indians stopped play when they had no other option, and applauded the brilliant Handscomb off the field where, earlier, they had gathered around to salute Marsh when the left handed number four had gotten to his 50.
Much has been said, and more will be, about the needle in this game, of shoulder clutches and harsh words and sundry other contraventions of the “spirit of the game”. But if you were watching that last hour, you saw that “spirit” exemplified. You saw a batting unit unwilling to relax even a fraction though their job had been done and their team had been saved. And you saw a bowling side unprepared to walk off, to rest, to put their feet up, as long as a minute remained where they could keep trying, an over remained that they could bowl.
Someone should preserve this game in aspic – and point to it every time the old cry of Test cricket losing its charm is heard. Or maybe that is just the Test tragic in me.
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