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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Champagne on ice: India bowlers put them in touching distance of a famous win

Australia were wobbling at 133/6 at stumps on the third day of the Boxing Day Test with Cameron Green (17* off 65) and Pat Cummins (15* off 53) in the middle.

Written by Sandip G | Updated: December 29, 2020 8:49:06 am
Jasprit Bumrah celebrates the wicket of Steve Smith with his teammates. (AP)

A brief, run-out-induced stutter lifted Australia’s morale in the morning. But a combination of their incompetent batting and India’s effective bowling dragged the match away from their grasp, thereby furnishing an unstoppable impetus to the visitors’ series-squaring ambition. India’s lead was contained to a healthy than unassailable 131, their batting folding up after Ajinkya Rahane was caught short of the crease, but the bowlers responded with a superlative exhibition of craft, cleverness and cunning, reducing Australia to 133 for six.

The sun-baked third-day strip portended a run feast, at least a hearty luncheon for the batsmen. There were only stray signs of indifferent bounce, but hardly any movement off the surface or reverse swing as the ball got older. But this generation of Australian batsmen is not as blessed as some of the preceding ones to blossom in these conditions. Conversely, this batch of Indian bowlers, even without Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma, has the knack of blooming in hostile conditions more than some of their predecessors. Rather, they are too skilled to be conditions-bound. They have mastered their craft as well as forged the rare gift of persistence.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah embody these characteristics — which in a larger canvas reflects the brand of cricket the team plies. They don’t flinch, setbacks don’t set them back, they ride over adversities, and when the familiar avenues close down on them, they find their own alleys to succeed. The spirit of ingenuity and industry shone through Ashwin’s setting up or Marnus Labuschagne. The latter thought he had out-thought the off-spinner. The leg-side trap was neatly foiled while sprightly feet movement enabled him to step out and smother the spin. He caressed a beautiful drive through covers to reveal his comfort in quelling the off-spinner.

Then Ashwin came round the wicket. It mattered not to Labuschagne. Unlike in the previous outings, he was making a concerted effort to play straight than across. Ashwin then lulled him with a couple of deliveries into the body, conveying the impression that he was plotting another leg-side snare. But then he angled one across him, the away-drift fooling the batsman into thinking that the ball would go further away. But the ball straightened after pitching. Late in judging the ball, Labuschagne offered a hopeful prod, but the ball was designed with laser-guided precision and kissed the outside edge. The Aussie No. 3 looked defeatedly at a rejoicing Ashwin.

Australia’s second-best man to conceptualise a batting redemption was nipped. In that sense, Australia is a bit like India in the 1990s. Over-reliant on two batsmen.

Then came Bumrah’s inevitable, match-influencing moment.

He executed what most fast bowlers had dreamt, designed and only failed. He bowled Smith round the stumps. As with any such instance, it will carry a fluke-or-freak tag. But the infusion of craft should not be dismissed. First, the delivery seamed in a fraction more than Smith had gauged, it didn’t bounce as much he had figured out and, most fatally, was quicker than he had expected. In Ashwin and Bumrah, India have two genuine match-winning bowlers, capable of transcending conditions and situations. With Smith and Labuschagne gone at the score of 71, Australia disintegrated in expected fashion.

They did show doggedness in the fine Australian tradition. But the limitation of their skills swirled around the majestic arena. Matthew Wade scrapped, scratched and gritted around for 137 balls, but for only 40 runs, and without ever looking assured. It seemed he could get out any ball, leave alone engineering a memorable, halcyon-day comeback. These Aussies are capable of fighting it out, but not winning the fight. Wade, a hardworking but not champion batsman, opening for Australia in itself is an anomaly.

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For ages, the world has grown accustomed to watching uninhibited, tempo-setting stroke-makers at the top of their order. Even if their best opener, David Warner, was injured, are they not reputed to churning out quality batsmen in bounty? Long gone seems the time the Sheffield Shield produced fit-for-Test-quality batsmen in a heap. Wade at least showed fight, but his fellow opener Joe Burns lasted only 10 balls, an uncertain stay ending with a sharp Umesh Yadav out-swinger.

The robust pacer, though, limped off midway through his fourth over. But it didn’t demoralise the bowling unit. Having five specialists doubtlessly helped, but India did not lose the plot and sustained the intensity. The support cast of Mohammed Siraj and Ravindra Jadeja logged in determined shifts. Unlike in the first innings, there was negligible moisture that benefitted Siraj. But he adjusted accordingly, shortening his length, using the width of the crease and shuffling his angles. He purchased occasional away movement that bargained the wicket of Travis Head, who like most of his colleagues, failed to exude assurance or authority.

Head also departed at a delicate moment of the game, just two overs after Ravindra Jadeja had dislodged Wade’s resistance. Again, it owed to Jadeja’s perseverance and cunning. He had kept the left-hander on a leash, mixing his pace and trajectory. He realised Wade’s back-foot orientation, and made him feel comfortable with good-length balls. Then he bowled one fuller and a tad faster, which crept past his feeble defensive thrust. A typical Jadeja dismissal in the subcontinent, albeit without the ball gripping the surface. The twin blows nailed Australia’s looming fate.

Jadeja dealt another punch, when he had Tim Paine caught behind with a ball that bounced more than the Australian skipper had anticipated. The DRS-overturned decision would certainly question the accuracy of the review method — the snickometer registered a spike but Hot Spot showed no contact marks — however it hardly had match-altering potential. Jadeja could have picked a third, but for Rishabh Pant spilling a straightforward outside edge of Cameron Green. The young all-rounder’s lusty blows prevented Australia from an innings defeat, but the fate of the game looks sealed. It was as much a case of Indian bowlers’ competence as the incompetence of Australia’s batsmen.

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