Economic Times, March 27

At the end of the second day the match was poised on knife’s edge
© Economic Times

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and you will find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. The Australian cricket team might have met the Dalai Lama on the eve of the Dharamsala Test, but it was these words, Matthew 7:7, from the King James Bible that typified their effort on a second day’s play that left the game poised on the proverbial knife’s edge.

Josh Hazlewood asked questions with the dexterity and tact of an interrogator wearing down a stubborn suspect, marrying nagging accuracy and monstrous movement off the cracks in the pitch, and the wicket of M Vijay was given to him, the batsman playing at a ball that was short enough to leave after being given a torrid time.

Pat Cummins sought some method to use his pace and bounce as a weapon in Indian conditions and found the answer in the judicious use of the short-pitched delivery, harassing India’s batsmen, forcing them to take evasive action and finally blasted them out through the sheer force of his will.

Nathan Lyon knocked on the door that stood between Australia and a way back into the game with the Indians having made a sound start and when it was ajar he stormed through, picking up four wickets in one session to open up the Test match.

The pitch at Dharamsala, described by both teams as the best of the series, made for gripping Test-match cricket. There was value for shots if you got it right as a batsman and this underpinned India’s unusually belligerent approach. There was enough lateral movement and shape through the air to keep the fast bowlers interested all day long, even as the ball softened and lost some of its bite. There was grip and bounce for the spinners when they put enough action on the ball, ensuring that even set batsmen were not immune to being induced into committing an error of judgment.

Whichever way this Test ends — and neither team will comfortably feel they are ahead at what feels more like the halfway point of the Test, even with three days to play — those watching would have got their money’s worth. Whether this is the ideal surface for India to try and force a win in a deciding Test, given how much it helps Australia’s quicker and taller bowlers, is a question for the team to ponder. Given that neither team has complained about the surfaces on offer, although the skirmishes between supporters and journalists from the two countries has occasionally reached pantomime proportions, it’s unlikely that India will be wondering why they did not make more of the home advantage that is their natural right. If India win, the taste of success, coming at the end of a long and successful home season, will be all that sweeter. If they lose, handicapped as they already are by Virat Kohli’s absence, these players would have been involved in the kind of stern examination at home that they are unaccustomed to and will be better for it.

And, if that is not the point of Test cricket, what is?

If it sounds like the second day belonged to Australia, it is because it felt that way, although the scoreboard will reflect parity between the two teams. This was perhaps because KL Rahul, India’s most consistent batsman this series, made his fifth half-century, but failed to convert it into a big score, “horrible execution” of a pull shot, in his own words, causing his downfall. It was also because Cheteshwar Pujara had batted 150 balls for 56 before the next one proved his undoing, Lyon pouncing after an elaborate stalking dance. It was because Karun Nair is in serious danger of kissing his India badge goodbye, following his triple-century with scores of 0, 26 and 23.

All is certainly not lost for India, with them trailing by only 52 runs, four wickets in hand and every batsman boasting a first class century in his CV. But, batting last on this pitch will be anything but easy, and the manner in which Australia made India toil for every run showed that they had enough energy in them for one final push, despite the work their bowlers have put in already.

When Steven Smith asked the Dalai Lama what might help him sleep better, the wise old man cracked his signature smile, the wrinkles on his brow betraying a lifetime of wisdom gathered. “When your mind is at peace, sleep naturally comes,” he said. “So relax your mind and go there.”

When the final ball of this Test is bowled, there will be plenty of time for sleep, win or lose, but for the moment, though, neither of these teams will rest easy.

(This article was first published in the Economic Times on March 27, 2017)