There have been encouraging instances of 300-plus chases. One from the recent past and one from distant history. But the bowling attack the Australians are up against is perhaps the best in Indian history….
Travis Head remembers enough to know all is not lost as yet.
At this very venue, less than a month ago, he had struck 87 in the first innings as captain of South Australia, and his side had taken the upper hand against the visiting Western Australians. And then he had watched the opposition chase down 313 and get home with five wickets to spare.
What will buoy him up further is that the architect of the Western Australia triumph was none other than the man batting at the other end. Shaun Marsh had come in at 12 for 1 on that day, had hit an impeccable unbeaten 163.
What can be further heartening for the Australians is the similarity of the situations! The hosts have ended the fourth day at 104 for 4. Western Australia had been 4 down for 113, before Marsh’s brilliance, alongside a fighting half-century by William Bosisto, had turned things around.
Head himself did look untroubled for much of his first innings 72 here against India. And during his brief outing on the fourth afternoon seemed to be comfortable enough to assuage at least some strained Australian nerves.
And Marsh has been compact so far, albeit with a few moments of worry. It is true that his last 50-plus score in Test cricket came way back in January, as many as 14 innings earlier. But, he will be fully aware of his own heroic knock on this ground in the very recent past.
So, it is perhaps not impossible to get a remarkable partnership going that can swing the game Australia’s way.
However, there are quite stark differences between the Sheffield Shield contest and this Test match.
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The main disparity is that the Indian attack is as near relentlessly probing as any that they have produced in their 86-year-old Test history.
Mohammad Shami has gotten into a nice groove which can spell accelerated doom for any opposition. He has already picked up a couple of wickets.
The Marcus Harris dismissal was a classic Shami bait and snatch. Already dropped once in the slip, Harris was served up an inswinger followed by a ball moving away off the seam in the other direction. The batsman, who had looked quite a neat sight while executing booming drives, went for another one and snicked. Rishabh Pant threw the ball up in celebration and Harris, raging at himself, stormed off, hurling his gloves down in disgust as he left the field.
The way Peter Handscombe perished also underlines how dangerous Shami’s skiddiness can be. The ball got to him much quicker than the batsman anticipated, and the resulting pull was taken at short mid-wicket, death with a whimper for someone who looked ready to fight it out till the end.
Reverse swing will probably not be a major factor here, but even then Shami will remain a constant threat.
And Ravichandran Ashwin is a man on a mission. The stage is set for him to answer all the critics who have so far questioned his performances away from home in spin-unfriendly countries. The pitch is as helpful as he will ever get in these parts. Nathan Lyon, pitching on the footmarks of Mitchell Starc, has already shown how much it can be exploited.
Ashwin has not quite managed the amount of turn and bounce Lyon obtained, but his guile has tied the Aussie batsmen in quite a few knots. The Aaron Finch dismissal perhaps generated a lot of surprises because the batsman did not go for a review, but it was the result of some incessantly probing bowling. And while Usman Khwaja did play a loose shot, it was precisely because he had been tied down to strokelessness by Ashwin and the others, and had spent quite a while unable to get the ball off the square.
With even part-timer Murali Vijay getting an eye-popping bite and turn, the Indian off-spinning ace will be more than a potent weapon on the final day.
And while the other two did not pick up wickets, both came very close to doing so. Ishant Sharma bowled Finch with a no-ball, and had another ball flying from the shoulder of Marsh’s bat. Jasprit Bumrah has been uniformly superb in his short career, and here he has always looked like breaking through at any moment.
Most importantly, the proportion of loose balls sent down by the Indian bowlers has been negligibly small. Every run has had to be fought for. In summary, the bowling has been stifling.
So, while all is indeed not lost for Australia, it will take a monumental performance and a near-miraculous rearguard effort to turn it around from here .
Tim Payne is yet to bat, and the skipper will be as determined as he was when he batted over three and a half hours to save the Test at Dubai two months ago. But after that, it boils down to the tail. There are a number of spirited batsmen in the Australian lower order, but it is a tough ask for them to chase down a demanding target on this track.
Australia has chased down 300-plus fourth innings targets 9 times. Three of the efforts have been at home, three of them in this century and only one of them against India.
They did manage to overhaul a steep target of 339 at Perth in 1977-78. It was a third-string Australian side with the cream and the second layer of talent turning up in the Kerry Packer engineered World Series Cricket.
But, leg-spinner Tony Mann came in as the night-watchman and got a hundred, Peter Toohey batted out of his skin to score 83. The trio of Bishan Bedi, Bhagawat Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan could not stop the motley group of Australian batsmen from clinching a two-wicket win.
That was the weakest Australian side India ever came across in these shores, and they did manage the near-impossible of chasing down 339. This Payne-led team is nowhere near that brittle, especially in the bowling department. But the batting in the absence of Steven Smith and David Warner is vulnerable, and it is considered a weak outfit by many. They can perhaps take heart from that curious bit of success 41 years ago brought about by an even weaker side.
There are thus snippets of recent and distant history that can provide a glimpse of hope for the home side. But, it will require a supreme effort to stop the Indians from going one up in the series.