Midway through the first session on Monday (March 20), it appeared as if Ravindra Jadeja had sucker-punched Australia. In one extraordinary but explicable lapse in concentration, Steven Smith only hesitantly poked his pad out to a delivery sent down from over the stumps, which zeroed in on the footmarks outside his leg pole.
Had he thrust his left leg out just a little bit, Australia’s captain could easily have kicked the ball away. Instead, by not committing to the act, he set the stage for the ball to rip at least a foot and knock his off peg out.
That was in the 22nd over of the final day of the third Test, the seeming killer blow leaving the visitor gasping at 63 for 4 and needing a further 89 to make India bat again at the JSCA International Stadium. A remarkable come-from-behind Indian victory loomed, until Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb reprised Cheteshwar Pujara and Wriddhiman Saha.
Using the slowness of even the fifth-day track and the softness of the ball as allies, the veteran left-hand batsman and the rookie with a sparkling future calmly, purposefully, assuredly repelled India’s charge and helped Australia come away with an honourable draw. Having started the day at a wobbly 23 for 2 after trailing by 152, Australia carried its spunk, spirit and resolve to 204 for 6 when the teams shook hands after the 13th mandatory over, making this the first five-day stalemate in India since the Rajkot Test against England in early November.
By the time Jadeja belatedly broke through by outfoxing Marsh, the fifth-wicket pair had put on 124 but, equally crucially, occupied the crease for 232 minutes and batted out 374 deliveries. A fabulous effort to round off a gripping Test match of pendulous fortunes on a surface that played nothing like the minefield it had been made out to be.
The draw left the series locked at 1-1, with everything to play for in the final Test starting in Dharamsala on Saturday.
After the twin successes of the previous evening, India would have fancied taking a 2-1 lead to the sixth first-time Test venue this home season, but it wouldn’t have been unaware that it would be no breeze, not with the surface not deteriorating enough and not with whatever little pace there might have been having seeped out. Monday was always going to be a game of patience and absolute focus, more for Australia’s batsmen than India’s bowlers, and it was a game Matt Renshaw and Smith first, and Marsh and Handscomb with finality, played extremely well.
Australia batted not just with grim resolve but also great intelligence and common-sense, working in partnerships in more ways than one. The rough outside the off-stump was always going to be the left-hand batsman’s biggest concern against the left-arm spin of Jadeja, so Handscomb almost shielded Marsh to largely take the Jadeja threat out of the equation.
Not unexpectedly, Virat Kohli started with Jadeja at one end, and pace at the other. With the light roller settling the surface, the plan was to attack with spin, and keep things quiet through Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma, who both resorted to bowling wide outside off to Smith to ensure that the scoreboard did not progress at any great rate.
Smith was as fluent as he has been all series while Renshaw pitched tent, content merely to occupy the crease and play out time. The game of cat-and-mouse continued past the first hour when, fired up after being stopped deep in his run-up, Ishant softened Renshaw up with a couple of short deliveries and then pitched the next one fuller, catching the batsman on the move and trapping him palpably in front.
Three deliveries later came Smith’s second moment of indecision. As spectacular an error in judgement as it was, it must not be forgotten that the Australian captain is only human. He had batted for 512 minutes in the first innings, been kept on the field for a further 869 minutes by the Indians, and had spent an hour and a half at the crease on Monday. The timing of his dismissal was inopportune, the manner unedifying but, as they say, it happens, and Australia had lost both set batsmen for the addition of just four runs.
On Sunday evening, Darren Lehmann had called the task that lay ahead of the batting unit a great challenge. Marsh and Handscomb met that challenge with no little fortitude, complementing each other beautifully and all but taking the score out of the equation without getting entirely bogged down. Jadeja was a constant threat with his stump-to-stump line to the right-hand batsman and by targeting the rough for the left-hander; Handscomb and Marsh put the odd spitter immediately out of their minds, the focus trained firmly on what was ahead rather than what had already transpired.
Ishant’s fiery seven-over burst meant Kohli had to delay R Ashwin’s introduction until just before lunch. The off-spinner, who has plateaued a fair bit in the last couple of games, was far from his best, not finding too much joy off the pitch but also not doing enough through the air to seriously trouble the batsmen.
Kohli tried every trick in the book, switching his bowlers around, changing lines of attack and packing the close-in cordon, but Marsh and Handscomb wouldn’t be budged. Marsh is considered somewhat of a subcontinent expert and he did that reputation no harm at all, playing the ball late and near his body, and using the softest of hands to blunt edges going to hand. Handscomb was a little more careful in using his feet than he normally is, playing his best innings of a series in which he has got off to starts every single time but hadn’t touched 25 in five previous innings.
A dramatic first session that produced 60 for 2 in 28.4 overs gave way to a second session that was even more absorbing: 33 desperate overs yielded only 66, 14 of them in one Ashwin over as Handscomb brought the twinkle toes out, but the wickets column remained static. The expected crumbling of the pitch never materialised, and as the sun beat down relentlessly, India was clearly in need of a miracle or Australia had to press the self-destruct button to prevent what now seemed inevitable – a draw.
The occasional oohs and aahs were more optimistic than borne out of any conviction, and India’s DRS referrals were twice off target by no more than a couple of millimetres. On such narrow margins do the fate of a cricket match hinge. Saha survived a leg before verdict early on Sunday morning to put India in the driver’s seat in Pujara’s company; Marsh and Handscomb had obviously been paying very close attention during that 199-run association, for they not just took a leaf out of the India seventh-wicket pair’s duo, they actually took the entire book.
Another good turnout tried to find ways to keep itself entertained, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni obliged by putting in an appearance. The former skipper watched his one-time teammates baulked by the phlegmatic resistance from Marsh and Handscomb. Perhaps, he would have done things differently, perhaps he would have fashioned a wicket from somewhere, or perhaps he also, like Kohli, would have been forced to grudgingly admire Australia’s Dubai-fuelled rearguard action. We will never know, will we?