Never say die is a cliché but there is a reason clichés come about – they ring true at the most opportune moments. Australia wouldn’t have expected to be forced to tigerishly defend an imposing total of 348 for 8 on Wednesday (January 20), but sheer resolve and much greater mental strength under pressure meant they pulled 4-0 ahead in a match that was a dead rubber only in name.
India’s chase at the Manuka Oval seemed to be on cruise mode when Shikhar Dhawan (126 off 113) and Virat Kohli (106 off 92) were putting together an incandescent 212 runs for the second wicket in just 177 balls. But from 277 for 1, with 72 runs needed in 76 balls, a spectacular implosion meant nine wickets tumbled in 72 balls for the addition of a measly 46 runs.
Australia ran away victors by 25 runs on what will have been possibly the most dispiriting day for the Indian contingent on tour, having lost a fourth successive match, and one that they had least business losing from among all four.
The day began with Steven Smith getting the first of several calls right, and winning the toss on a batting beauty. An opening partnership of 187 in 29.3 overs set the stage, David Warner (93 off 92) teeing off at the start and Aaron Finch carrying on the good work for a run-a-ball 107. A middle-overs stutter was overcome by Smith and Glenn Maxwell going berserk at the end. Smith blasted his way to 51 off 29, which was made to look like a dawdling stroll when Maxwell toyed with the bowling to hit 41 off 20.
Rohit Sharma got the Indian chase off on the perfect note, his effortless timing on show in a 25-ball 41 that gave India the platform needed, with the opening partnership worth 65 in eight overs. The first ball Kohli faced raced to the boundary, a half step forward and wide taken and the bat connecting supremely with James Faulkner’s slightly widish delivery to send it to the point fence. At the other end, Shikhar was finally in his element after a wretched series, matching Kohli shot for shot, and ton for ton.
When Kohli and Shikhar were batting, it seemed a matter of when India would chase it down, not whether. The bowling was rendered almost irrelevant with both men putting the ball where they pleased. Kohli had walked in when Shikhar was already on 24, but the vice-captain quickly caught up with his Delhi teammate, and then both kept pace with each other.
Both men raced to centuries at quicker than a run a ball, and the chase seemed a stroll, until the first hurdle arrived in the form of Shikhar’s wicket. From there, it was a spectacular procession that stunned even the Australians, who put down catches galore and yet won in a canter in the end.
Shikhar seemed to lose concentration cutting a ball in the air for George Bailey to take a simple catch. The same over brought John Hastings another wicket, with MS Dhoni poking to be caught behind before he had scored, and the Australians sensed a sniff.
That became a very real chance when Kohli checked his shot to hit Kane Richardson straight to Smith at mid-off, and India were 278 for 4. That was the opening Australia needed, and Richardson ran through the line-up to return 5 for 68 and walk away the Man of the Match in a batting-dominated contest. His first six overs had brought 1 for 52, the next four had 4 for 16, as batsman after batsman threw away a golden chance for a famous win with very questionable shot-making and decision-making. India’s good position turned tricky, and the tricky position turned dire, but no one showed the nous to stem the rot.
At the start of Australia’s innings, there was an ominous sign, a straight drive from Finch changing direction after a deflection via Ishant Sharma’s hand to strike umpire Richard Kettleborough flush on the shin in the sixth over. Kettleborough would walk off the field at the end of the 17th over, with swelling and numbness on his right foot, Paul Wilson taking his place. Then, at the end of the 20th over, Ajinkya Rahane split the webbing of his right hand while stopping a Warner thump, and left the field. He didn’t come back on the field and got four stitches. He came on to bat late during India’s chase but could do little to arrest the slide.
John Ward, the other on-field umpire, came out wearing a helmet that stayed on throughout – having recently been at the receiving end of a Barinder Sran hit while officiating in a Ranji Trophy match in Dindigul in November-December. Sran wasn’t part of the Indian XI in this match, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar replacing him, but, somewhat surprisingly, there was no return for R Ashwin, who continued to be benched even as the rest of the bowling attack didn’t inspire confidence and was battered rather more than either Kettleborough’s shin or Rahane’s hand.
Australia’s assault began through Warner, one of two Australian inclusions alongside Nathan Lyon, with Shaun Marsh and Scott Boland sitting out. The opener ripped Bhuvneshwar apart in the fourth over with three boundaries, then showed he didn’t play favourites in the next over, taking Umesh Yadav for the same number of boundaries.
The only stutter came when the decision to promote Mitchell Marsh to No.3 didn’t come off, the big allrounder struggling to hit the ball with the same fluency or impact that Warner and Finch had.
Finch accelerated well though, but when he fell, Smith came in to up the tempo considerably, while Maxwell provided a rousing finishing touch. In the last over of the innings, Ishant Sharma was taken for 18 runs, including a reverse lap that Maxwell merely seemed to touch before it flew to the boundary. He fell off the final ball of the innings, Manish Pandey showing he was a good fielding substitute for Rahane by diving to his left at square-leg to pull off a great catch. The wicket was Ishant’s fourth, but as an analysis of 10-0-77-4 showed, it wasn’t down to incisive bowling as much as batsmen hitting out.
The bowlers’ profligacy might have still not come back to haunt India, with the way Kohli and Shikhar were going. Kohli was the heartbeat that powered India, Shikhar the backbone that held the innings together. Shikhar’s fall broke India’s spine, Kohli’s stopped their heart. Ironically, that brought a dead contest to life for their opponents.