On a depressingly gloomy Day Four, only 107 minutes of play were possible due to a combination of drizzle and bad light, dismaying a lively Sunday crowd.
The Sydney Cricket Ground wore the frustration on its face. Most of the spectators were milling about, some joined the kids playing cricket wherever they found space to park their plastic stumps. The umpires kept circumventing the ground, holding onto their caps from being blown away by the breeze. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav circled the ground chatting. Ravi Shastri and Sanjay Bangar occasionally roamed around the rope with grim faces. They couldn’t wait any longer to wrap up the Test and celebrate a famous win.
Ravichandran Ashwin, meanwhile, dragged bowling coach Bharat Arun to the nets and bowled for nearly an hour, though he was often interrupted by the playful crowd asking him whether he needed a batsman to bowl to. “We’ve a few kids out here, shall we send them?” shrieked one of them. But Ashwin’s focus didn’t waver.
Half an hour later, at 1.50 pm, the match resumed, after eating up nearly 40 overs and the possibility of an early finish. Long before though, the outcome of the series was nailed, the match, and thus the series, was beyond Australia to salvage. All they could was to delay the inevitable, but it was so meaningless an exercise that they were made to look like props in a play.
The moment Mohammed Shami bowled Pat Cummins with a ball that kept low, the inevitability loomed like the large still clouds that hung over the stadium. If they had envisaged to go down fighting, as they are storied to, they didn’t, batting aimlessly and looking as disenchanted as any Australia side one had ever see.
What followed was a bizarre passage of play, wherein India made no fuss in reducing Australia from 236 for 6 to 258 for 9 before Hanuma Vihari showered some generosity by dropping Josh Hazlewood off Kuldeep Yadav, prolonging his quest for a five-for. Yadav got so disgusted that for a couple of overs his bowling lost its fizz. He did pocket his five-for, but it was after a frustrating wait of 79 balls, when Mitchell Starc and Hazlewood threw their bat around to help Australia reach 300.
But then came the biggest reality check, the realisation of how low they’d plunged, when Virat Kohli enforced the follow-on. Kohli had an opportunity in Melbourne but there India not only didn’t have the cushion of 300-plus runs but also the series was squared. But here, with just five sessions and 322 runs, they needn’t have feared a miraculous Australian comeback.
However, when Kohli conveyed the message to the Australians, the stadium began to mourn. For, it was the first time they’d followed on on home soil since 1988, a stretch that lasted 172 Tests. Apart from Tim Paine, Nathan Lyon and Shaun Marsh, none of the Australian players in this match were even born at that time, when England asked them to bat again at the same ground. As if they had no other reason to pine, this was the ego-bruising sucker-punch. Some of their legends were at a loss of words. Former pacer Stuart Clark felt their bowlers had let them down. “It doesn’t often happen, when the visiting side’s bowling has done better than our bowlers. It’s a shame,” he said.
Former skipper Ricky Ponting was even more scathing, blasting the Australian batsmen’s lack of courage and fight. He specifically censured Starc for not letting Nathan Lyon seek the DRS after the umpire had adjudged him leg before off Yadav.
“That dismissal actually says a lot to me about the mindset of this Australian team at the moment. There’s no desperation there whatsoever. Why wouldn’t they have had a look at that? They’ve still got the two reviews up their sleeve. There had to be some sort of doubt in that,” he said.
Replays later showed the ball, which struck him full on the pads, could have evaded the leg-stump. “Even Mitchell Starc put his head down and says ‘it is not me’ but it’s up to you to make it. It’s a partnership. When they are together, you’ve got to do whatever you can to try and save your mate. There was absolutely none of that there. That’s slack and not desperate enough,” Ponting added. It summed up Australia’s batting performance in the entire series. How they wished the rain had drowned out the entire match.
Explained | Why despite lights being on, bad light rule came into force
Floodlights were supposed to ensure that players stay on the field as long as possible. But much to India’s frustration, not a lot of action was seen in Australia’s second innings as Virat Kohli went for an emphatic 3-1 series scoreline. That’s because the light was considered unsatisfactory. It may seem contradictory for a series in which operating under floodlights is part of the playing conditions, but the colour of the ball is the problem. With the red ball in use, the artificial light can only help to an extent. It is not easy to see when the background gets dark.
One can understand the disappointment of the Sunday crowd. But the practice is for umpires to go by the light meters at their disposal, and there is a level below which they consider conditions unsatisfactory for play. So, even if there is no rain in the air, bad light has the potential to suspend play.
High-quality lights make cricket possible at night, but white and pink balls are considerably easier to sight than red ones. Even though getting as much play as possible is one of the ways to keep Test cricket popular these days when Twenty20 is gaining mindspace, rules sometimes ensure just the opposite effect.