A day before the third Test, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli made us believe that they had expelled the ghosts of rancour gathered in Bangalore. Like artful diplomats, they talked diplomacy and “the need to bring cricket back into the forefront” in Ranchi. Subconsciously, though, they might have sensed that the ghosts would re-emerge when the proverbial heat of the moment intensified. And as this Test has unfolded, there were more compelling confirmation that it’s still stirring them, and that all those peace talks were an illusory smokescreen, resurfacing as it did on the third day.
It began with Virat Kohli clapping mockingly, from the dressing room, as Australia expended their last review on Cheteshwar Pujara, one of those iffy is-it-pad-or-bat types. The Australians were convinced it grazed the pad first. The third umpire was less so. He snappily spurned them. Smith disbelievingly shook his head. Steve’O Keefe shrugged his head in dismay. The front-on camera ascertained they were wrong. But the side-on frame in collusion with the ultra-edge, which the third umpire didn’t bother to seek, aggravated their wound of denial. And then flashed Kohli’s bit of provocation on the giant screen.
Later, assistant coach, David Saker, claimed Australia didn’t read too much into it or were affected by it. “I don’t know if it was directed at anyone in particular but that’s the way he’s been playing this series. It’s a really cut-throat series for everyone and it’s first versus second, so there’s a lot of pressure,” he explained.
As Saker had observed this was the flakiest moment of a tense, fractious first session, with the fire-and-brimstone Australian bowlers raking up pressure on Pujara and Vijay, badgering them intermittently, clogging the run-making arteries and probing their levels of patience.
The 107 balls, thus far, had given away just 29 runs, and of those several edges and tight singles. There was a foreboding sense of nerves snapping-one of the batsmen doing something silly or the bowlers losing it all on a hot forenoon. It was a good measure of the ice-cool temperament Vijay and Pujara had demonstrated in their 102-run alliance, quite possibly the most difficult 102 runs they had strung together. Their focus was unwavering.
The next ball after Australians had exhausted their reviews, they were made to curse the wicked luck even more. Nathan Lyon induced a faint inside edge off Vijay’s bat and it plopped to Peter Handscomb at short-leg. But the umpire wasn’t convinced and so Vijay survived. Australians were left grimacing their wretched run of fortune, and repenting the wasted review on Vijay towards the fag end of the second day.
The back-to-back setbacks punctured their courage and convictions, and they recoiled, their focus drifting and intensity evaporating. In the next 12 overs, before splurged his wicket, they added 43 runs, reverting the momentum. But it was that kind of a fickle game where fortunes fluctuated sinuously, where no team felt fully comfortable. Vijay’s gift restored some of their slumping spirits, heading into the intermission. As with intermissions in movies, something dramatic happens soon upon resumption, so that the audience gets the drift. The second half of the day began with the entry of India’s super hero and Australia’s pantomime villain, Virat Kohli. The very sight of him descending the dressing room steps seemed to enliven them. Suddenly, they were more vocal and vibrant, suddenly it felt there were more than 11 Australians on the field. Suddenly, the stadium transported itself into a gladiatorial stage.
It seemed several corollaries swimming underneath the main thread-the one between Kohli and Australia, the one between Kohli and Smith, the one between the crowd and Australia. It made for a riveting watch-Kohli, resolute and relentless, Smith and Co, screeching and squealing, bent to make each ball he faced an ordeal.
Kohli creditably didn’t get sucked into all these. Without betraying any signs of physical pain of the injured shoulder, or any doubts of the mind, he comfortably dealt with the queries posed by Josh Hazlewood. Then came Pat Cummins, his pace an unsettling entity even on this slow featherbed. Kohli saw Pujara crunching him through midwicket. Kohli then saw Glenn Maxwell, after saving a boundary, holding his shoulder, wincing, and then breaking into laughter, as if he were mimicking Kohli.
Then Kohli saw the blurry red ball lurching towards him. Kohli saw his feet and hands syncing that grass-burning drive of his. But Kohli just saw the ball biting the outside edge of his blade. He turned back and saw Smith, the catcher, almost knocked back by the sheer pace of the ball. Australia broke into frenzied celebrations, like a bunch of excited kids in an amusement park. Smith scowled, like Kohli would. The send off, expectedly, was elaborate.
Kohli’s dismissal sort of dampened the intensity in the session, like the actual climax was over and what remained was a gentle meandering epilogue. The Indians, Vijay said, have taken this in a sportive way. He, though, ends in a veiled warning. “There’s going to be a second innings, so hopefully if they can take it that way, it’ll be great.” The ghosts of rancour are by no means expelled. And you would expect there’s more to come on the last two days of this engrossing, see-sawing contest.