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Friday, February 26, 2021

India-Australia series in four frames

It might not have been as insanely high quality as the 2001 series but the just-concluded affair threw up lots of drama, controversy and spine-tingling stuff.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan , Daksh Panwar , Sandip G , Sriram Veera |
Updated: March 30, 2017 8:48:16 am

Shoulder to shoulder:  1st Test (Pune), Second session, Second day 

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PROBABLY WE should be surprised that this series didn’t see a single shoulder barge. Not only did we see a shoulder injury keep Murali Vijay out of a Test; Virat Kohli’s shoulders dominated headlines for the first time since he famously carried some 34,000+ international runs around the Wankhede Stadium on them following India’s 2011 World Cup win. And, of course, pointing at your shoulder became a rather nasty form of sledging. But the shoulder that originally got India into trouble in the first Test was the one that helped them get back and dominate the series thereafter. KL Rahul played a wild shot in the first innings at Pune after a classy 64 and fell to the ground clutching his already injured left shoulder. His dismissal set off India’s worst-ever collapse, they lost 7 for 11 to Stephen O’Keefe’s unremarkable trickery.

“I think the shot created the injury, not just to him but even to the team,” is how coach Anil Kumble would describe it. While Rahul was a doubtful starter for the Bangalore Test, it was Vijay who was ruled out due to a sore shoulder. The Karnataka opener never looked back scoring five consecutive half-centuries, including the series-winning runs in Dharamsala, and earned the man-of-the-match award for good measure in India’s series-leveling win. The injured shoulder, in Rahul’s own admission, was a blessing in disguise as it meant that his generally expansive stroke-play was “restricted”, and it meant he was more guarded against the Australian spinners in particular. A batsman who likes to take spinners on from the get-go—and “hit them for sixes” like he put it—Rahul was more content to milk them around and looked the most solid of the Indians on all surfaces, including the diabolical one at Pune. “I know I will have to focus harder with the little problem in my shoulder now. I’m enjoying batting with that problem,” he’d said after his twin fifties in Bangalore.

Sticking with the shoulder theme the series ended inevitably with the Indians handing a cold shoulder to the Aussies who requested to have a few cold ones in their dressing room, at least according to a section of the Australian media anyway.

Screaming skipper: 2nd Test (Bangalore) First session, second day 

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It wasn’t a shot or a magic ball or an athletic fielding act that turned the tide for India in Bangalore. It wasn’t even some passionate captain’s talk or some on-field strategy. It was a scream from Virat Kohli. Sometime into second day, after India had collapsed for 189 on the first day, David Warner got out. The Indian captain screamed. And then he screamed a bit more. Not satisfied with his own lung power, he turned to the crowd and asked them to deafen out the Aussies with blood-curling aural mania. The crowd began to respond to their pied piper and went absolutely head-banging crazy as the session and day went on. Every time he felt the crowd was turning quiet, Kohli would rev them up, waving his arms like a ringleader. It was spine-tingling in its origin and soul-crushing in the effect it had on the Aussies.

It was the only time when Steve Smith looked like he was under pressure as a batsman in the series. He hung on bravely but you could feel it was just going to be a matter of time. He was dancing around at the crease, saw Ishant Sharma make faces, heard Kohli jabber on relentlessly, saw Ashwin’s lips from close-quarters, and must have smelt the deodorants of nearly all the Indians who started to harangue him with their sheer presence. Australia still rallied through the motormouth Matt Renshaw and a man who seems to be on a vow of silence Shaun Marsh but it was clear that Indians had found themselves. They looked like they were mugged in Pune, and were almost anonymous on the first day in Bangalore, threatening to hand over the Border-Gavaskar Trophy without a fight but something stirred inside them on that manic second day’s play. Perhaps, it was Kohli’s screams and the intangible effect of a hostile home crowd behind you. Later, some like Steve Waugh would lay silly criticism about the sportsmanship of Kohli’s act but he knew what he was doing. Australia were hurled into a nervy, feverish, passionate, parochial, emotional cauldron. And more importantly, a lacklustre India had found their fangs.

Chest gain: 3rd Test (Ranchi), Second session, fourth day

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Arching his spine, Wriddhiman Saha showed his chest to the ball, devilishly travelling at him. It crashed into his soft tissues of his lower chest. It must have surely pained him. It must have pained most batsmen. But Saha didn’t wince, let alone flinch. If he shut his eyes, for a fleeting moment, he was shaken back into reality by Pat Cummins’ shriek, than an appeal, for a caught behind. Cummins sought a review. Saha nodded reassuringly at his partner, Cheteshwar Pujara. The review certified Saha’s conviction. There was no bat or glove involved.

By that time, India had already squeezed out a slender lead—Saha himself was on 82—but hopes of forcing a victory were still faint. But more than anything else, it embodied the often unassuming courage of the wicket-keeper, the character he showed and the sense of purpose the whole team had demonstrated after losing the first Test and their skipper, Virat Kohli, injured on the first day. The next ball was a scorching yorker, in excess of 145 kmph. But Saha preempted it, and dug it without any fuss, though it must have been exceedingly difficult for him to pick it in the fading light. But here his hunch was vindicated.

The short-ball intimidation resumed in Cummins’s next over. The first three balls were all bouncers, all at his rib cage. Saha wouldn’t bother. He weaved away from the line of the delivery, which hissed past his shoulder. To the second he ducked, the lack of zipping bounces meant it nearly kissed his helmet. The third was shorter, and comfortably left it on its upward climb. The last ball was steered to the third man for a single. Cummins sat on his haunches, expended, after sending down three fiery, rewardless overs.

It was symbolic of Australian bowlers ceding dominance to the Indian batsmen. Saha went on score 31 more runs off 40 balls, completed his third hundred. When he departed, India were 90 runs ahead. And Australia must have realised that there is more spine to this Indian batting line-up than what they had anticipated.

The fifth element: 4th Test (Dharamsala)

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A turning point, by definition, is that one moment during the course of an event that influences the outcome. Sometimes, though, that moment of truth can come not during but before the event. The wheels of India’s victory in the series decider in Dharamshala were set in motion before the match actually began, when the regular Test skipper allowed his replacement the required space. A day before the match, it became evident that Ajinkya Rahane would stand in for the injured Virat Kohli. But the new captain was torn between playing an extra bowler and, as India had been doing in the previous two matches, trust four to bowl out the opposition. Perhaps the draw in Ranchi, where India’s tired bowlers could find a way past Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb in the second innings, made Rahane gravitate towards the former.

Hesitant to make the decision on the own, he approached Kohli and asked what he felt.”I said, this is your game, you have to be comfortable with playing play four or five bowlers,” Kohli would later reveal. “He instantly said five bowlers because he understands the workloads of the guys throughout the whole season and to keep pushing two guys to take wickets for you regularly is unfair when the body is tired.”It was a brave call to play with a batsman less when your most influential batsman is unavailable. Once it was decided that five bowlers would play the choice, Rahane, Kohli and Anil Kumble had a discussion and zeroed in on Kuldeep Yadav as he brought an element of surprise.

The young left-arm unorthodox spinner turned out to be the ace in the hole.  “To win Test matches, you need some courage before you start, to take that little bit of risk and play five bowlers. Credit to him that he went in with five bowlers,” Kohli said.Credit to Kohli as well to cede the decision making role to Rahane. An intense leader that Kohli is, it would have been counter-intuitive for him to step aside and not get involved. Initially, in the first session on Day One, it seemed Kohli was itching to get back into the thick of things as he came onto the field carrying water and advice. India looked like it had two captains, and at the same time none. This was the only session where the team appeared listless as they conceded 131/1. Kohli stepped back soon after, and Rahane and his fifth bowler stepped up. As did India.

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