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Just before the 92nd over of the Australian innings, as Ravichandran Ashwin was stretching his tired limbs to deliver another over, an anxious Virat Kohli rushed to Ian Gould, and nearly pulled up the sleeves to check the time. Unlike the good old stadiums, the modern ones, for all their architectural marvel, don’t bother about mounting a clock atop the manual scoreboard. They didn’t have one in Ranchi either. And hence, Kohli had to keep tab of the moving needles with the help of umpires.
There were 35 more minutes for Kohli and his men to conjure something miraculous. After 30 minutes, crushing the last strand of hope, Kohli shook hands with Peter Handscomb, thus ending a Test match that was fascinating on several levels. The script wasn’t meant for the multiplex types, but for the connoisseur cliques. It was a multi-layered, meandering drama.
At one point, it seemed to be heading for a second-session finish when Ishant Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja struck in the space of four deliveries.They had snuffed out the likeliest Australian pair, Steve Smith and Matt Renshaw, capable of forcing a draw. For this duo, one would’ve wagered, could battle the wanton rough and a wantoner exploiter of it, Ravindra Jadeja.
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It was a battle even Australia coach Darren Lehmann considered lost at the end of the fourth day. Implying the puffy rough outside the left-hander’s off-stump — and Australia had two more in the dressing room apart from Matt Renshaw — he had said with the despondence of a man who knows his end is near: “Eight good balls there, that’s it.” Australia, so unlike Australia, seemed to be shrouded in near-resignation. They would have slid into further misery when Smith and Renshaw retreated into the dressing room, half an hour before lunch. The familiar narrative arc of a fifth-day script in the subcontinent seemed about to unfurl.
But it didn’t, due to the sheer bloody-mindedness of Peter Handscomb and Shaun Marsh, allied with a fatigued group of bowlers, and as Kohli later groused, a ball that lost its hardness as the match progressed. It was an unfamiliar sight to see two overseas batsmen orchestrating an improbable rearguard. It was equally strange to witness Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin not slitting through opposition’s batting line-up.
They have repeated it so effectively, and routinely, in the last six months that only a couple of matches have seen the dawn of the fifth day this season. So why were the famed Indian pair less lethal? The most straightforward answer was that they were blunted by a pair of batsmen who batted as if their dear lives depended on it. There was the immensely talented Marsh, whose return to Test cricket was considered symptomatic of Australia’s shortage of quality batsmen. Just as Handscomb’s swelling maturity has the purists twitching in their armchairs. So, barely half an hour before the interval, thrust on to this burning deck of a sinking ship were a ridiculed veteran and a doubted youngster. That was just around the time the Indians were at their intense best on the field; verbals were strewn at the batsmen, Jadeja was probing the rough and Ashwin seemed to dust up the vaunted tricks of his. They uncertainly survived till lunch.
Intense second session
But the bigger battles were yet to be fought, for they had to bat out more than 50 overs together to even start imagining leaving Ranchi with the series still level. The second session would be more intense, the spinners predatory, the pacers refreshed, the fielders more urgent and the pitch deteriorating. Merely thinking of the ordeals that awaited would have made their minds quiver. What they saw in the next half an hour probably stunned than surprised them.
Suddenly, they could sense the vibes of complacency. Kohli, surprisingly, began with Umesh Yadav and Ashwin, when probably two spinners bowling in tandem would have made more sense.
Yadav has newfound discipline, but Jadeja was a far potent wicket-taking option. It wouldn’t have been a case of Jadeja being too tired, because he is accustomed to bowling long spells, and he was by a fair distance the best bowler in the match.
When finally Jadeja was introduced, after 11 overs, Marsh and Handscomb had steered clear of the tricky post-interval phase. Their method were clearer and footwork assured. They seemed to have learnt from the follies of David Warner and Steve Smith: that half measures are perilous on this surface; that they can’t bat with the fear of that magic ball; and that it was their moment of acceptance.
For the next 374 balls and 232 minutes, they embodied that very Aussie spirit of resilience. They were also lucky that they weren’t facing Jadeja and Ashwin in their most deceptive mood. Ashwin, apart from an occasional burst or two, had been largely plain. Even Jadeja, after the first session, seemed jaded.
Maybe, it was the residual fatigue of a long-winding season — together they had sent down 4,000-odd balls this season — or it was an unsupportive wicket or a ball that went too soft too fast, or maybe they were worn down by the sheer patience of two batsmen who made their skipper seek the umpire’s watch after every over.
At the end of it all, the slumberous pitch seemed to mock at the devilish tint it had before the match. Wicket from Mars? Not really.