Whether we look at it from the match situation or base our analysis on historical data, not asking Australia to bat again was a curious decision. If weather does play a role in the remaining days of the Test match, this can very well be the escape route gifted to the opposition…..
The Australian innings was over in 66 overs and 5 balls. Other than Shaun Marsh and Tim Paine, no one lasted more than 50 deliveries.
Jasprit Bumrah has 17 wickets in this series, at 14.11 runs per scalp, a dismissal every 40.6 balls. Incredibly, in this series, he has made the batsman either play/miss or edge the ball once for every four deliveries that he has sent down. That is near miraculous. The short ball-yorker combination he employed today was a bit too much for most of the fragile Australian batting line up.
When Josh Hazlewood was stuck on the crease, shaken by two short pitched deliveries, and remained clueless about the full in-swinger that crashed into his stumps, the hosts were all-out for 151. They trailed by 292. A huge deficit. There was time enough to send them back in and start hammering the final nails into the prepared coffin.
But, following the curious aversion to enforce the follow-on of modern day cricket, India decided to bat again.
So, in walked Mayank Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari, with the intention perhaps of building a 450 to 500-run lead by the first session on the fourth day. I say ‘perhaps’ because tactics have often not been clear in recent times.
And then Josh Hazlewood suddenly saw light. In terms of placing a man backward of square on the leg side and attacking the leg and middle line. And soon the tactic was carried forward by Pat Cummins.
The Indians succumbed, and in a tearing hurry. Vihari was bounced out as in the first innings. And then the cream of the batting perished in the leg trap, through what must be categorised as a sort of lackadaisical approach.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli flicked Cummins to the man at leg gully, and walked back for undignified ducks. Ajinkya Rahane swiped at a shorter one and feathered it down to Tim Paine. 32 for 4 , four wickets lost in the space of 19 deliveries.
And by the end of the day, Rohit Sharma had slashed at a Hazelwood delivery outside the off and was walking back. Debutant Agarwal was standing alone amidst the ruins, wondering what had gone wrong at the other end.
The 27 overs India spent batting today, after deciding not to ask the Australians to bat again, yielded a listless 54 for 5.
No reason why
Yes, the huge first innings lead means that India is comfortably enough placed 346 ahead.
Yet, it leaves one wondering. Why did they not send the Aussies back in? They were already quivering in their shoes, pads and gloves, anticipating the loss of a wicket every time Bumrah’s arm was raised like a piston for the next delivery. Their morale was at the lowest nadir, their swagger destroyed by being demolished for the paltry score.
If they had been sent back in, the score currently showing against India could have been theirs. Bumrah was bowling with his tail up. Mohammad Shami had been potent as well. Ishant Sharma had been a tad expensive, but can always be counted upon keeping it tight if there is someone making them hop at the other end. Ravindra Jadeja had also troubled the batsmen, keeping it tight, picking up 2 for 45 from 25 tidy overs. It was all going India’s. Riding on that momentum, the match could have been all but wrapped up this afternoon.
However, India decided to bat again. And as a result, they played a session of cricket that they would love to forget.
While it cannot be said that Australia is back in the match, their morale is definitely way higher than what it was when their innings had folded. Five quick wickets can do that for you.
Besides, from wanting to call all the remaining shots in the match, including declaring at their own convenience, India are at least a bit at the receiving end. Now that the scorecard reads 54 for 5, and the lead though sizable but not insurmountable, that declaration option has probably gone out of the equation. When exactly Australia go in to bat again will largely depend on how quickly or how late they dismiss the remaining batsmen. Unless of course Agarwal and Rishabh Pant put together a stirring partnership.
A situation that had looked absolutely dark and gloomy for Australia seems to have developed a tiny bit of glimmer. It may amount to nothing, and most probably it will not, but when they take the field on the morrow, they will be distinctly more upbeat.
Besides, there is a chance of rain over the next two days.
A significant chance of rain at that.
In 1985-86, India had ignored the weather warnings at Melbourne. They had 125 to get in two sessions, and had crawled to 59 for 2 at tea. The skies had opened up after that and the chance of winning the Test and series had been washed away.
If weather becomes a factor here, maybe the decision to bat again will not look that good.
And was there any reason not to enforce the follow on?
The standard excuse is that the bowlers need to be rested. Really?
India bowled 66.5 overs in the day, Jadeja sending down 25 of them, Vihari 3. Only 38.5 overs were shared by three faster bowlers. Ishant bowled 13, Bumrah 15.5 and Shami 10. Do bowlers really need a rest after that? Especially given just about 30 more overs were left in the day. With Jadeja holding one end up, was it really that difficult for the pacemen to manage some 5 to 7 more overs apiece before winding up for the day? With the chance of all but completing the job for India?
What if now sessions are lost due to rain and the Australians glimpse the chance of seeing through a curtailed day or so to save the match? As Abhishek Mukherjee has pointed out, there are not really too many demons in the wicket. It was just brilliant bowling and bad batting combining in the loss of wickets. Will it be a totally impossible task to bat time out if crucial periods are lost due to rain?
No, in my view it would have been best to press home the advantage when the hosts were down and out. Not allow them to gain a confidence boost by firing a bunch of Indian batsmen out in quick time.
The Cognitive Fallacy
Was there any risk of the follow-on backfiring?
Granted, it can be difficult to chase 150-plus in the fourth innings.
But with a lead of 292, a 150-run target meant allowing the Australians score around 450. Is it reasonable to expect this brittle Australian line-up, without David Warner and Steven Smith, to pile up 450 against such an attack? After that humiliation in the first innings.
If they are indeed capable of putting up 450 in the third innings, they are surely more than capable of chasing down around 450 on the morrow. In that case, India, 346 ahead with 5 wickets down, are not in the safest of positions.
The 2001 epic at Eden Gardens, when VVS Laxman scripted that magnificent 281 and Harbhajan Singh skittled Australia out on the fifth day, seems to be playing with the psyches of several captains when faced with the choice of re-inserting the opposition. The ploy, which at one point of time had been regulation, has bordered on the exception now.
However, this is a classic case of availability heuristic trumping base rate.
That incident could have been an impactful one which has remained on top of cricketing memories, and is still fresh enough to recall vividly.
But Test cricket has been played for 142 years. The black swan event of winning after following on has happened precisely 3 times in the history of the game.
It has literally taken place once in each century that the game has been played.
And in every case, there has been something exceptional to influence it.
In 1894-95, there was rain which made Jack Blackham appear in the morning with a face as long as a coffee pot. In 1981, it was an Ian Botham miracle, assisted by enormous amounts of fortune which saw skied hooks falling in no man’s land again and again, after which Bob Willis produced a bowling performance to die for. And in 2001 it was VVS Laxman’s brilliance, an innings that Wisden rated the sixth best knock of all time.
These are outliers and it does not make sense to base decisions on such rarest of rare events.
The follow-on has been enforced 322 times in the history of Test cricket. On 249 occasions (77.3%) the result has been a win. 70 (21.7%) of them have yielded draws. Only 3 (0.93%) have seen defeats. One cannot take a decision based on less than 1% probability.
Even after the 2001 Test, there have been 90 instances of the follow on. 76 of these Tests (84.44%) have been wins and 14 (15.56% ) have been draws.
So, actually enforcing the follow on loads the odds in your favour.
It will be a pity if such a cognitive error plays a role, helped by the vagaries of weather, in preventing India from winning. Especially after that supreme Bumrah spell. A real pity.
One does hope it does not come to that.