After being outclassed in Nagpur and Delhi, Australia held their nerve in Indore to register a nine-wicket victory in the third Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with the series now standing at 2-1 to the hosts.
The win is one to cherish for the visitors as it is only their second Test win in India since the Nagpur Test win in 2004. After that, they only won at Pune in 2017. Visiting teams don’t win in much in India, but Australia continue to find ways where possible.
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It was a rare loss for the hosts, it is only the third time that India – who have won their last 15 home series – have lost a game at home in the last decade.
Playing to their strengths but at what cost?
A lot of times, India’s almost speckless record at home is marred with accusations of dishing out turning tracks.
But like Rohit Sharma reiterated multiple times in the post-match press-conference: What’s the harm in playing to one’s strengths? Everyone does it. He also very systematically disintegrated the accusations about how all three matches in the series ending inside three days is big a deal.
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He made his point by citing the example of the first Test between South Africa and West Indies that finished in three days too. He then spoke about relatively flatter pitches dished out in Pakistan, and said that people found that boring.
“We are making it interesting for you,” he added with a smile, in classic Rohit fashion.
But what stood out most was his admission that when they make a conscious decision to play on pitches and conditions that are bound to really test the opposition, you should be up to the challenge too.
“Before every series we usually decide what kind of pitches we want to play on. It was our call to play on pitches like these. I don’t think we are putting pressure on the batters. We have decided that these are the kind of pitches we want to play on and in the process, we are bound to be challenged as well. We are ready to face those challenges,” he said.
But here’s the catch: Were India ready?
In both victories earlier in the series, it was the heroics of the lower-order, particularly Axar Patel, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja that pulled India out of a difficult place and pushed them closer to victory. There was a brilliant century by Rohit Sharma but otherwise there were troubles at the top of the order with KL Rahul’s form and now Shubman Gill missing out in both the innings. Virat Kohli’s lack of runs in this format is a concern too. Most of all, Rishabh Pant’s absence stings. Barring Cheteshwar Pujara on a couple of occasions, India have not been able to rely on their top and middle-order batters completely, consistently.
That possibility was mildly exposed in Delhi when Australia made India toil but it only caught up to them in Indore, where they were looking to seal the deal with a 3-0 lead and also a spot at the World Test Championship final in June.
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Eight wickets for spinner Nathan Lyon saw India bundled out for 163 in their second innings, setting up a victory target of 76, which seemed comfortably within Australia’s grasp. In the post-match press presentation as well, Rohit was accepting of the fact that while Lyon was bowling beautifully, India needed to be brave.
He said, “We need to understand, no matter what the pitches are, you gotta come out and do the job. We need to keep it simple and follow the plan. When you are playing on challenging pitches, we need to be brave. We allowed their bowlers to bowl on one particular spot. Not taking any credit away from their bowlers, especially Nathan Lyon. He kept challenging us hitting the right lengths. When the bowler is trying to do that, gotta be a little brave which I thought we were not.”
Inefficient batting against spin
While the Indian spinners’ shine also dulled in comparison to Lyon’s performance with the ball, it was actually the batting that was a bigger letdown. In the first innings, for instance, it’s never helpful to win the toss, opt to bat and then lose seven wickets in the first session of the game.
As soon as spin was introduced, India began to falter as Matthew Kuhnemann picked up his first five-for and held the hosts to just 109. They then conceded a significant 88-run lead when the visitors came on to bat. They were aware that they needed to compensate in the second innings but failed to do so again. Even Pujara, the top-scorer of the Indian innings admitted that the 75-run lead did seem less.
In the press conference, Rohit clearly identified one of the biggest reasons for the loss and said, “One odd game can happen like that where things don’t come together but even then then you need players to come together and chip in.”
“We wanted a few guys to stand up and put their hand up and take the team through, but it didn’t happen. We were slightly behind and we didn’t adapt as we would have liked to. We need to understand that we need to improve as a team,” he added.
“Lack of concentration is what I would put it to. Apply yourself and bat as long as possible and take odd chances in the middle. Do not let the bowler bowl all six balls in the same spot and try to do something different. That is something we did not do in both the innings.”
Ahmedabad: To spin or not?
So, because the Indian batters’ inability to adapt to spin has been exposed, will India go out of their way to have something drastically different produced in Ahmedabad? It seems unlikely.
Because, despite all this, Rohit also had great clarity about what his team needs to get right. According to him, India, like every other team in the world, will play on home pitches that play to their strengths but it’s the batters who are struggling who simply need to figure out a way to score on them. He almost said it like there’s no way around it: you got to do what you what you got to do.
“Like I said, this is the kind of pitch we wanted to play on and this is our strength,” Rohit said. “When you play at home, you want to play to your strength and not worry about what people outside are talking about. Our strength is spin bowling and that batting depth. Especially when we are getting results.... had we not gotten results (in the past), I would have thought otherwise. But we are playing well, getting the results and some batters are put under pressure and that’s okay. You cannot have all members of your team in good form, having a great time in the middle.”
Ahmedabad is going to be an interesting contest, even if it’s not a decider per se and India have already retained the trophy. India don’t lose often at home and Indore has shown Australia the way to fight back. But what would make it even more interesting is India doing exactly what Rohit wants – play to their strengths on another spinning track, maximise their home advantage and show that it is indeed down to application on these famed Indian pitches.
Live by the sword, die by the sword.