“There are no dings in this pitch. It is a traditional Indian wicket,” said Australian coach Darren Lehmann, after the fourth day’s play in Ranchi.
It was a welcome departure from the understandable pre-match fuss. The visitors needed something to concentrate on, even just move on from Virat Kohli and the whole DRS saga. Given the tough pitches in Pune and Bengaluru, this was the obvious topic of choice, particularly given the roughshod look of this wicket and those darned watered, dark patches. Neither the Australian nor the Indian camp could have predicted how it would play out.
Now, this match stares at a fifth day, anticipating either a tough grind or a volatile collapse from the Australian line-up. It is a ponderous turn of events, especially considering the visitors were flying high on hundreds from Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell only two days ago. When they had finished with 451 runs at some point on day two, and the nature of this pitch known, all three results were possible.
At stumps on day four then, that number has come down to two. And the only question remaining is this – just how did this happen?
Monumental and humongous
Cheteshwar Pujara is the obvious answer. India have come back to win Tests this home season after losing the toss, and while Australia focussed on Kohli, Pujara became the focal point of this turn-around. If his innings on day three was about a marathon grind, then day four was more of the same. Only, its effect had far-reaching consequences.
Two statistics matter herein. 175 – that is the number of dot balls Steve O’Keefe bowled to Pujara, most of them kicked away from outside the leg-stump. The left-arm spinner bowled a humongous 77 overs, not only in the hope of exploiting rough on this wicket, but also to dry up runs with a negative line. Australia played on his patience, hoping he would step out and try to score more runs, mirroring Murali Vijay. But Pujara did not bite.
The other is 675 – the number of minutes Pujara’s marathon innings lasted, wherein he faced 525 deliveries, the most by an Indian batsman in Test cricket. To say it was an innings of discipline would be gross injustice. Instead, imagine following a disciplined routine for 675 minutes, precisely 11 hours and 15 minutes of the same exercise, again and again, then again, and some more after that. Is there anything a normal human can do for so long? Not even sleep, unless drugged.
Australia couldn’t either, for they could only bowl so many tight overs. The runs were bound to come, and they did, as the bowlers tired out. Only, they came from the other end as Pujara continued to hold anchor. Giving him company, Wriddhiman Saha played a knock that defines his position in this Indian squad today, and portrays his journey since Sydney (back in 2014-‘15).
Saha finally steps into Dhoni’s shoes
Filling MS Dhoni’s shoes was never going to be an easy ask, and answering this call has been Saha’s greatest success. He is among the top keepers in the country, but it is with the bat that he needed to bridge a gap with the lower order, something Dhoni was adept at. For this, the team management – Kohli in particular –afforded Saha considerable time to find his comfort zone. It came to fruition today.
“I am backing myself more now. I used to have doubts early in my career when playing sweep shot or stepping out. Now the team is supporting me, and it is having a good effect on me,” said Saha after scoring this third hundred this season, stretching back to the West Indies tour.
That trip was of immense value to Saha’s enhanced confidence. Knowing his penchant for aggressive stroke-play, Kohli changed things around and asked R Ashwin to bat ahead of the keeper-batsman. It worked wonders for both players, and on this fourth day, this confidence-building exercise from the past eight months helped boost India’s standing in this match.
Saha’s runs were in stark contrast from the past two Tests, wherein the Indian lower-order has struggled to get going. It was the missing link in their twin failures in Pune, and the low first innings’ total in Bengaluru. His efforts had helped put up a decent target in the second innings there as well. Here, the narrative was different.
A perfect partnership
He needed to tighten his game, and match Pujara step for step. It was only a good thing that they had practice of the same, back in the Irani Trophy final in January when they shared a 316-run partnership for Rest of India. “It was in the back of our minds, and Pujara egged me on, just like he did in the Irani Trophy. We focussed on punishing loose balls, and running between the wickets. Our targets were 10-15 runs at a time,” Saha said.
In a sense it explains why India’s run-rate didn’t move too quickly even when Pujara-Saha were well settled. For example, even when Australia took the third new ball after lunch, the next hour of play only yielded 36 runs. Clearly, there was certain monotony about their partnership, which neither batsman wanted to break. For India’s plan to turn tables and succeed in winning this Test, it was vital that they didn’t accelerate.
The reasoning is simple. At that juncture, India’s lead was a mere 20 runs. Both Pujara and Saha got out after tea trying to force the pace. If they had done so two hours earlier, in the post-lunch session, this advantageous set-up would have been lost. Instead, they provided Ravindra Jadeja the perfect platform to display some sword fighting skills, and he didn’t disappoint.
After the duo’s dismissal, Jadeja put on 62 runs with Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma. India’s tail wagged again, and Australia were finally cornered, particularly with the loss of two wickets at stumps.
“We want to save the game. We have practiced this scenario in Dubai and tomorrow we have to deliver on the big stage. If India can bowl 10 wicket-taking deliveries, so be it,” said Lehmann, admitting the possibility of only two outcomes. His words set up an intriguing fifth day of this third Test, one that not many thought would transpire.