On Monday, day five of the inaugural Test in Ranchi, there was only one question to be asked. Would MS Dhoni, free from his Jharkhand commitments, show up? The other question – whether India would go on to take eight wickets and win – wasn’t even bothered about.
Dhoni did arrive post lunch, and found himself a nice spot in one of the corporate boxes on the floor above the Indian dressing room. Time and again, the camera panned to the former skipper, who then duly waved to his hometown faithful. Perhaps the producer of this match’s broadcast was bored by the on-field action.
For good reason, as Peter Handscomb and Shaun Marsh batted 69.1 overs to dig Australia out of trouble. They weren’t interested in scoring too many runs – just enough to make sure that India needed to bat again to force a result. Instead, they were keen on eating up as much time as possible, thus not allowing the hosts any overs to score those runs. Some time after tea, Australia managed to overturn the 152-run first innings’ deficit and took the lead. Then, there was the small matter of even getting them bowled out even.
Surprisingly enough, at the stroke of lunch, the outlook was different. Australia had lost Matt Renshaw and Steve Smith in the space of three balls just a bit before the break. Two more sessions – India would eventually get the six wickets needed. It didn’t happen.
“We have prepared for this scenario, and now we need to put it in practice,” coach Darren Lehmann had said at the end of day four. “We need to plan how to play Ravindra Jadeja with that rough outside the left-hander’s off-stump. If India bowl 10 unplayable balls, so be it.” Well, of course, India didn’t bowl the required number of unplayable deliveries. Australia didn’t mind either, for they were too busy.
The great grind
Following their coach’s words, the great grind began in the morning session itself. The key battle herein was how Renshaw would face Jadeja pitching into that celebrated rough. It was simple really – the big-bodied left-handed opener simply moved across the stumps as the spinner hit his delivery stride, and planted his front foot firmly in line with the rough patch outside his off-stump.
In doing so, Renshaw achieved two things. First, when he was rapped on the pads, the positioning of his front foot took lbw out of the equation. And second, it forced Jadeja to alter his length, even line, to the left-hander. Either he pitched it a little short of the rough, to find natural turn off the pitch and into the exposed middle/leg stumps, or he came round the wicket.
Later, Shaun Marsh adopted the same ploy against Jadeja, but with a difference. Renshaw, as a young batsman, looks busy at the crease. He isn’t as fidgety as Smith, but there are a couple disconcerting initial movements about his stance. It was why he was prone to be an LBW candidate on a pitch where the odd ball would either keep low or turn in sharply. It is how Renshaw perished, but this ploy didn’t work against Marsh. This is because in comparison with Renshaw, he is more compact, and plays within his natural stance. It allows him to step outside the line of off-stump, whilst maintaining enough balance to rock back if necessary.
No use of Ashwin
Herein, Marsh was also aided by the simple fact that India didn’t use R Ashwin properly on this final day. Let’s rephrase that last sentence – the match conditions didn’t allow skipper Virat Kohli to use the record-breaking off-spinner in a desired manner. There was no discernable rough for Ashwin (or even Nathan Lyon) from either end. And then, there was the odd happenstance wherein the SG balls used, when older, went soft, too soft for proper utilisation by either Ashwin or Lyon.
“The ball was being changed [almost] after 40 overs,” explained Kohli in the post-match press conference. “It happened when Australia were bowling as well. It didn’t stay hard enough to get bite off the surface.” Surely, it cannot be a coincidence that both off-spinners in this Test suffered the same fate. Lyon took 1/163 in 46 overs; Ashwin returned figures of 1/114 and 1/71 in 64 overs in two innings.
In effect then, one of Kohli’s arms was tied behind his back, and this is where Handscomb took full advantage. While Ashwin was brought on late in the morning session, he was almost negated by Handscomb’s efficient footwork. For one, he played inside the line of delivery, and then aided himself, by coming forward on every opportunity possible. It was in the 62nd over that he won the battle, striking Ashwin for 14 runs, the highlight being his quick stride down the wicket producing a drive through midwicket for four.
“They just stuck to their plans and defended magnificently,” said Smith later on. “To me, Peter’s 70-odd seem like 150 given the situation we were in.” Sheepishly then, Smith went on to admit that the pitch had played a part. “Looking at the wicket before the start of this Test, I didn’t expect the game to go into the fifth day. It was a good pitch.”
His words then put the whole pre-match debate – nay, drama – into perspective. There is hardly anyone who read this Ranchi pitch right. Most in the Australian camp went overboard and predicted a three-day Test. Most in the Indian camp, a bit guarded but circumspect, made various annotations about bounce and turn. Everyone including the players and coaches was proven wrong. Everyone barring the pitch curator, that is!
Primacy of Test cricket
The underlying question though is about the primacy of Test cricket. This pitch produced four wickets in 90 overs on the fifth day. Only 25 wickets fell during the course of these last five days in exchange for 1,258 runs. Handscomb faced 200 deliveries on this final day. Cheteshwar Pujara batted for 11-plus hours. The match ended in a tame draw.
Mind you, they were both fantastic knocks and this was an intriguing Test. Yet, pitches in Pune and Bengaluru, rated poor and below average respectively, would be weeping tears of blood. The visiting side scored 500-plus in the first Test. Almost everyone agrees that the second Test was a joy to behold. Does the quality of cricket matter more or duration of a particular match? Just what did the curators in Pune and Bengaluru do wrong?