“Series-deciding” has been the most common cliché in this four-Test India-Australia duel. You might have heard it many times from the television commentators, or read it on social media, maybe even in match reports predicting how any particular coming day/session might alter this contest. In that sense, there have been many “series-deciding” sessions in this India-Australia series.
There won’t be anymore of them though. The morning session on day three of this fourth Test in Dharamsala nearly assured us of that. When India went to bed on Sunday night, they were placed at 248/6, still 52 runs behind on a day when the Australian pacers (and Nathan Lyon) tied the scoring rate down.
Breaking the shackles was priority No 1, but not in the manner many Australian commentators suggested. There is a reason why Test cricket ebbs and flows. There is a reason why a strike-rate under 40, even 30, is acceptable. There is a reason why you cannot simply step out to slam sixes at will, and it is mostly because the five-day game allows the opposition to get on top and make you grind. Crucially enough, this aspect wasn’t lost on the two overnight batsmen, Wriddhiman Saha and Ravindra Jadeja.
India’s new crisis man and MVP
“We discussed that we needed to score bulk of the runs in our partnership,” said Jadeja after the day’s play. “Our target was to get as close to 300 as possible. If we were there till 300, then we could go for big shots.”
The 96-run partnership between Saha and Jadeja was a reflection of the key factor in India’s climb to the No 1 ranking. Whether against the West Indies, New Zealand or England, the lower order always contributed runs. Except in the early part of this series, they became unstuck when the runs simply didn’t flow in Pune and the first innings in Bengaluru.
Thereafter, Saha has been central to the lower order’s rejuvenation, almost kick-starting this machinery single-handedly. Known for his skills behind the wicket, the real challenge for Saha was to live up to MS Dhoni’s standards with the bat. Sure, he has lived up to it with 646 runs in 14 Tests (average 46.14) this season, but the crux is in how they have come. The keeper-batsman stuck around in Bengaluru, then in Ranchi, and now again in Dharamsala, stringing together vital partnerships with Ishant Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara and now Jadeja, respectively. He is the new man-for-a-crisis in the Indian team, at least in Test cricket.
Meanwhile, Jadeja has quickly climbed steps to becoming the most valuable player for this team that boasts of the likes of Virat Kohli and R Ashwin. The mind goes back to Kohli’s words in Kanpur, when in the first Test of the home season against New Zealand, he had delayed India’s declaration in the second innings to allow Jadeja to get his half-century and “gain in confidence for future battles”, as the captain explained.
In Kanpur, it was only his second fifty in Test cricket, coming after a gap of two years (last one at Lord’s in 2014). Since then, Jadeja has gone on to swing his bat like a sword five more times this season, all of them coming in the last eight Tests. Like his 90-run knock in Mohali against England, though, Monday’s knock was one of heightened awareness.
Playing a few strokes on day two evening, and missing most of them, he understood the need to buckle down and bat for time, only then go for his strokes. At the other end, Saha changed his approach from Ranchi – he had looked to score there while Cheteshwar Pujara had dropped anchor. Here, he put that responsibility on Jadeja, and stuck to one end himself. Together they drove India close to, and past, 300. That 32-run lead was not match-winning, at least not then, but it was definitely irksome.
A true bowling attack
Imagine the consternation in the Australian dressing room, when they were struggling at 31/3, with their two dependable batsmen, Steve Smith and Matt Renshaw, back in the hut. “There was pin-drop silence in the dressing room,” said batting coach Graeme Hick, aptly describing the 137-run collapse.
The visitors’ only other batting failure in this series came in the second innings in Bengaluru, wherein they were bowled out for 112, and went on to lose the game thereafter. That loss can be attributed to an up-down pitch on day four, and sheer determination on part of the Indian team to pull one back after their embarrassing loss in Pune.
This Australian collapse, in Dharamsala, is a microcosm of how the Indian attack has progressed since July, after Anil Kumble took over the team’s reigns. It is a singular representation of not only their individual growth, but also as a bowling unit, an attack by definition. The key has been stringing together good spells, including maiden overs, and exerting pressure on the batsmen from both ends.
Their success isn’t measured in how many wickets they have taken. Instead, it is seen in how their partners at the other end have bowled, and this is why day three ought to be remembered. Look at how Ashwin and Jadeja combined together, after Kuldeep Yadav was hit out of the attack. The chinaman is still inexperienced, and Glenn Maxwell was able to counter him with a couple big hits. The need of the hour was a bowling partnership, and this is where Ashwin-Jadeja excel together. It was no surprise that they routed the middle and lower order together, sharing six wickets.
This, though, is not just about them. Instead, it is measured in the pace bowling of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav. Both of them have been part of brilliant spells this season – Kumar in St Lucia and Kolkata, Yadav in West Indies with Mohammed Shami, then at home against New Zealand and England, and then with Ishant in this series.
It is seen in the sparing use of Kumar by the team management. Wherever he has been picked – St Lucia, Kolkata and Dharamsala (Mumbai was a forced pick, since Ishant was busy getting married and Shami was injured) – the conditions have been near similar. He has had the ball on a string, but what has caught the eye is his improved fitness, heightened pace and the ability to move both the new and old balls. Meanwhile, Yadav has been ever present. Forget man-of-the-match or man-of-the-series, he should be named man-of-the-season for the control and guile he has exerted in his bowling since the dawn of 2016.
Two of their deliveries stand out – Kumar’s ripper to Warner as it hit the deck and climbed, making the opener jump in the air to fend it off. And, Yadav’s snorter to Renshaw, as the tall opener too leapt up in order to get in line with the ball. When was the last time Indian pacers made Australian batsmen dance in home conditions? Only Smith resisted them, even for his short stay, and he was the wicket India wanted most. Once the skipper played on, the floodgates opened.
The key to Kumar-Yadav’s success was also in their lines being closer to the stumps and fuller, making the batsmen play, or indeed edge behind. This was the key difference to how the Australian pacers, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, bowled on Sunday. Barring Karun Nair’s miss, the Indian fielders were on the money too. As such, on a pitch resembling ones in Australia, the visitors had nowhere to hide, whether against pace or spin.
Day four, then, will not see another “series-deciding” morning session. It will, instead, witness a series finale.