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Sunday, February 28, 2021

More heroics needed: India need to recall Australia spirit to survive final day

Washington and Ashwin star on Day 4, but India need to recall Australia spirit to survive final day.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty |
Updated: February 9, 2021 7:43:39 am
India have played just one pink ball Test at home. (File)

Washington Sundar ran out of partners and missed out on a maiden Test hundred. Ravichandran Ashwin collected his 28th career five-for in the England second innings. The two Chennai boys shone bright at Chepauk on Monday, in front of empty stands.

But the tourists have been so far ahead in the game from the first day that even after dismissing them for 178, India have a mountain to climb on the final day, or need to produce another memorable rearguard to avoid defeat. That they lost Rohit Sharma, to a Jack Leach beauty, while reaching 39 late in the day only made the task tougher.

Test cricket at the moment is thriving on cliff-hangers. The India-Australia series Down Under has contributed immensely to its fresh lease of life. At Chepauk, India will go into the Tuesday – another Test going into the final day with all four results possible – with nine wickets in hand. Thirty-five years ago at this venue, Kapil Dev’s India had scored 347 in 87 overs on the final day against Australia in a tied Test. Virat Kohli’s India need 381 runs on the fifth day to achieve the improbable.

India raised the bar in Australia. In Sydney, they batted 98 overs on the final day with broken bodies to eke out a draw. In Brisbane, they scored 329 in the fourth innings to breach fortress Gabba. Across borders too, over the last two days, Test cricket has embraced thrilling conclusions. On Sunday in Chattogram, West Indies rode on Kyle Mayers’ tour de force to chase down 395 against Bangladesh. On Monday in Rawalpindi, Hasan Ali’s bowling burst gave Pakistan their first series win over South Africa since 2003 on the final day of the second Test.

England’s pragmatism

All this probably weighed heavy on the England think tank, as they adopted a rather pragmatic approach post-tea on Monday. It didn’t make many friends.

Around 3.30pm India time, former Australia cricketers started to troll England on social media. The tourists’ lead was swelling up at the expense of overs consumed, but Joe Root wasn’t mulling a declaration. Mark Waugh aimed a dig on Twitter. Shane Warne called England’s approach “cautious and timid”. In 2008, India had chased down 387 in the fourth innings against England in Chennai. But England’s pragmatism here was apparently a result of India’s heroics in Australia.

Following Kohli’s return, India’s batting is even stronger. Rishabh Pant’s belligerence and Washington’s emergence are powerful factors to make any opposition iffy. Some of England’s moves, though, bordered on over-caution. Leach started bowling with a deep cover. That, and also Dom Bess bowling to Cheteshwar Pujara with a deep mid-wicket in the final over of the day, prompted raised eyebrows.

Not wishy-Washy

Washington’s body language showcased his mentality. The youngster thinks like a top-order batsman and has the skill-set to match it, a reason why he has taken to Test cricket like a duck to water. He remained unbeaten on 85 not out on Monday, on the heels of his 62 and 22 in Brisbane.

India resumed the fourth day on 257/6, aiming to take the innings deep. The first few overs of the day before the second new ball were crucial. From India’s point of view, it was important to score as many runs as possible in those six overs. Washington smashed a four past cover off Bess to start with. The shot that took him to his second half-century in his second Test, a classy cover-drive off Leach, was even better. By the time the second new ball was taken, India had reached 284. A six from Ashwin against Bess helped as well. The two put on 80 runs for the seventh wicket which ensured that England could return for their second innings only at the stroke of lunch. The visitors didn’t enforce the follow-on despite securing a 241-run first-innings lead.

No. 7 is a difficult position to bat in Test cricket. The batsman needs to have the technique to counter the second new ball. Also, he should be accomplished enough to bat with the lower order. Through his exploits in Brisbane and Chennai, Washington has shown he ticks those boxes.

Ashwin in his element

Ishant Sharma described the Chepauk pitch as “like a road” for the first two days. It has been hard work for bowlers. Understandably, in the first innings, Ashwin concentrated on line and length and varying his pace and trajectory in the air. The fourth-day pitch had deteriorated when England came out for their second innings. It was still pretty slow, but the turn was a lot more pronounced. Ashwin was in his element.

He opened the bowling and accounted for Rory Burns off the very first ball, drawing the batsman forward and letting the ball turn and jump before taking the shoulder of the bat to Ajinkya Rahane at first slip. Ashwin was getting dip as well and Dan Lawrence, in particular, was struggling to counter that. Even Root wasn’t comfortable. He was beaten in the air on a few occasions and countered that by playing the sweep shot as a mode of improvisation.

Ashwin got Dom Sibley with one that straightened. Ben Stokes was done in by a delivery that was tossed up but dipped sharply and turned away. Bess was dismissed with a skidder. Ashwin was enjoying his variations. His figures, 6/61, become even more creditable given that he barely had any support from the other end. Shahbaz Nadeem didn’t inspire confidence at this level. Ashwin didn’t have a partner with whom he could bowl in tandem.

A match haul of nine wickets has taken Ashwin’s tally to 386 wickets; fourth in the all-time list in Indian cricket after Anil Kumble, Kapil and Harbhajan Singh.

Ishant’s milestone

When he trapped Lawrence leg-before, Ishant became the third Indian fast bowler after Kapil and Zaheer Khan to reach the milestone of 300 Test wickets. It took him 98 Tests to get there – a career that has revelled in perseverance.

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