Change of attitude aids remarkable stand
You would need a bad memory - not always a bad thing - to have not thought of Durban just after lunch. Back then, in the last week of the last year, India had been given a flat slow pitch, they had won the toss, had got a good start to the innings, but their tail showed no fight whatsoever when they could have batted South Africa out of the game, made sure they would not lose the series and gone after the South Africa batsman with a free mind. The last five wickets went for 14, India lost the series, and nothing summed the situation up better than Zaheer Khan's second-ball duck ending through a slash after moving away from the stumps.
It showed poor team culture. These were the same bowlers who had given India valuable runs when the team was playing at its best; they were now either running away or not taking their batting seriously. In an era when every tailender, armoured and spoiled by pitches going flatter by the day, makes bowlers get him out, India's tail was non-existent in away matches. Between July 2011 and July 2014, before the start of this match, India have averaged 16.62 for the last three wickets. Only West Indies, Pakistan and Zimbabwe have fared worse. Until today India did not feature in any of the big last-three wicket partnerships over that period.
Going by that track record, this game was going away, and going away fast. And this was an innings where you would have expected extra responsibility from the lower middle order given the bold move of playing only five batsmen. MS Dhoni showed that responsibility, although he was aided by some good fortune. Ravindra Jadeja did not, and got out to a loose shot, although it did seem that Jadeja going for his shots was part of a plan. Debutant Stuart Binny played a horrible nothing shot, and Ishant Sharma misjudged a leave. This was Durban all over again: India had lost four wickets for four runs, they were going to get bowled out for a sub-par score on a flat pitch, and hand over all the momentum to the hosts.
Tail-end runs are as much about attitude as they are about skill and luck. Sometimes you enjoy some good fortune and have a bit of a lark. Sometimes your No. 9 has the skills of a batsman. Mostly, though, they start with a bit of application, an attitude that says 'I am not getting myself out', and you enjoy the luck, the bowlers get tired, and it gets difficult to get you out because most of bowlers' training is in getting proper batsmen out. Everything worked out for Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami here, and they ended up scoring their maiden Test fifties, posted India's longest last-wicket partnership outside Asia, and all but made sure India cannot lose this Test now.
This pitch was similar to Durban. And although there was no Dale Steyn, India still needed some application from somewhere because this match was slipping out of their hands. A calm head needed to arrest that momentum. Bhuvneshwar provided that calm head. He once scored a Duleep Trophy century, which featured a 127-run stand with a No. 11, out of which the No. 11 made only 39. He began similarly here, protecting Shami for a period before letting him become an equal partner, once assured that he could fend for himself on this benign track.
"We just wanted to bat for as long as possible," Bhuvneshwar later said.
Bhuvneshwar batted almost like a proper batsman while Shami had a bit of fun. Most important was that they were not playing soft shots, at least not at the start of the innings. Good fortune followed. A half chance flew wide of short mid-on, the position that had claimed Cheteshwar Pujara on the opening day. Another edge was missed by umpire Bruce Oxenford, who had another shocker with ruling M Vijay out incorrectly.
Dhoni has often spoken of the value of the lower-order runs, not just as pure runs but also as a nuisance for the other team, especially their openers. With the whole team coming out to the balcony to applaud the duo's milestones, you could sense the importance they attached to this partnership, especially after more than a couple of them had been naughty with their batting.
You usually associate entertainment and hilarity with partnerships between two tailenders, but there was not much here, thanks largely to an unresponsive pitch. Bhuvneshwar acknowledged this was more like an Indian surface than an English one. Not many might have been entertained by this particular stand, but the value of it in that Indian dressing room is immense. For starters, they will not be thinking of Durban too much.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo