There seemed a certain poetic justice to Cheteshwar Pujara bringing up the winning runs at the Arun Jaitley Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Saurashtra man has been a wonderful servant of Indian cricket for so long and it seemed unfair that, in his 100th Test, he should be dismissed for a duck in the first innings.
Destiny had other plans for the 35-year-old, ensuring that he had multiple reasons to look back on this momentous game with great fondness. Nothing is sweeter than a team victory; the icing on the cake is being in a position to formalise that, which Pujara did in his customary phlegmatic fashion on a manic third (and final) day of the second Test.
Spells of combative feistiness
It was a day Australia began with their noses in front. But a little over four and a quarter hours after the first ball was bowled, they were left picking up the pieces, shell-shocked and stunned by the rapidity with which events unfolded. Unlike in the first Test in Nagpur, which also ended on the third day, Australia weren’t comprehensively outplayed in New Delhi. Yet, for the isolated spells of combative feistiness, all that the world’s top-ranked Test team had to show was a six-wicket defeat that reiterated the gulf between the sides in these conditions.
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India took a giant step towards the final of the World Test Championship for a second cycle running where, all other things being equal, they will again meet the Australians. Unless they lose their two remaining Tests to Australia, hard to see on current form, and Sri Lanka defeat New Zealand 2–0 in New Zealand, even harder to envisage given history, India will seal their place in The Oval final in June. Equally crucially, by opening up a 2–0 advantage with two to play, India have made sure the Border Gavaskar Trophy, which they have held since 2017, will remain in their possession for the foreseeable future.
Aussies ‘swept out’
In some ways, the second Test played out along the same lines as the first and yet, in some others, it was significantly different. The similarities surrounded the final result, the depth in India’s batting, the quality of Ravindra Jadeja (Player of the Match yet again) and R Ashwin and the inability of Australia to apply themselves to the task at hand for long periods. The differences were for brief pockets during which Australia showcased the value of playing freely and a free mind, best illustrated by the approach adopted by Travis Head in the second innings.
Head only came out to open the batting because regular opener David Warner, in the middle of a terrible rut like his Indian counterpart KL Rahul, was ruled out after the opening day with a concussion injury. The left-handed Head has reinvented himself as a Test batsman whose game is based on taking the fight to the opposition, and he had Jadeja and Ashwin at his mercy on Saturday evening with some of the most crisp, decisive strokes of the Test match. Like Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb on day one, but with greater flair and authority, Head looked to have formulated a template for his batting colleagues to emulate, but it appeared as if no one was paying attention because once Australia lost Head, they also lost their collective heads.
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Just how addled their thinking was became apparent from the unmistakable pattern to the dismissals on the third morning, when they lost nine for 52 in 19.1 overs. One batsman after another embraced, and perished to, the high-risk sweep option, a particularly poor choice of stroke on a surface that demanded the use of feet and playing down the ground. Including Khawaja who was caught at leg gully on the second evening, seven batsmen fell to the sweep – either the conventional or the reverse. Surely, there can’t be just one way to skin the cat? Surely, after multiple embarrassments and meltdowns, there has to be a more trusted and high-percentage scoring option?
The spin twins
Where Australia were let down by their lack of skills and resolve, India dug deep to work their way out of potentially difficult situations. There were times when the spin twins looked a little off kilter — they have got so used to doing their bidding that they appeared slightly lost when the fight was taken to them — but they regrouped quickly enough to raise their level when challenged.
A healthy competition has been brewing between Ashwin and Jadeja for a while but they also complement each other beautifully despite both being attacking bowlers. The hunt for wickets didn’t prevent them from bowling as a partnership, and they were so effective that Rohit Sharma barely had to use Axar Patel, coming into this series with 47 wickets from eight Tests.
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Jadeja’s all-round brilliance and Axar’s handsome contributions down the order — his two hits this series have been 84 and 74, the second under extreme pressure with India on 139 for seven in reply to Australia’s 263 — have been as integral as Ashwin’s returns with bat and ball, the three spinning all-rounders going a long way towards compensating for iffy top-order displays.
Rahul’s bad form
Rahul’s sustained bad run is a growing cause for concern. As it happens when one’s out of form, he found a bizarre way of getting himself out on Sunday, caught by the keeper after a firm flick ricocheted off the short-leg fielder. While head coach Rahul Dravid and Rohit both threw their lot behind the vice-captain, it will be difficult to persist with him even though the team is on a winning roll and so can afford to ‘carry’ the odd under-performer.
Worryingly from their perspective, Rahul hasn’t looked like scoring runs. Sometimes, you get the feeling that a batsman is just one good innings away from hitting his straps again but watching Rahul in action doesn’t inspire that confidence. Against this backdrop, how long can the credentials of Shubman Gill, who brought up his maiden Test ton in Bangladesh last December, be ignored? And how do you justify to the young man why he is being kept out when the pedigreed senior is so horribly out of sorts? If Rohit and Dravid feel this is a far bigger challenge than the one posed by Australia so far, they can’t be faulted.
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