India's efforts fail to match aspirations
For seven days during this series there was a sense of the baton being passed. The champions had weakened and their inconsistent challengers were raising their performance. Australia were outplayed on all five days in Mohali in every aspect of the game and the same plot seemed to be unfolding on the first two days in Delhi. Until the Australian batsmen, fighting for a grip on the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, changed the script. They were resolute and prevailed in a situation that separates the great Test teams from the merely very good.
Great sides hang on in such situations. They stay switched on, they keep coming at their opponents relentlessly, they create opportunities and they take half-chances. For one day, the third, India tried to be that team. Although their bowlers were ineffective on a flat and slow pitch they continued to persevere. Their bowling attack was depleted by an injury to Harbhajan Singh before the match, and one to Anil Kumble on the third day, but Virender Sehwag stepped up and, thanks to his canny offspin, Australia still had work to do on the fourth day to ensure safety.
India, too, had work to do and needed more of the same perseverance to bowl Australia out in a session and a half. However, they lacked the urgency in their pursuit of greatness. The reward for yesterday's efforts and this morning's tight start came in the form of a regulation catch at mid-off but Ishant Sharma parried the offering towards the long-off boundary. Michael Clarke was 21 at the time of his first let off - he would get two more in the 90s - and Australia were still behind by 263. Amit Mishra, the bowler who lost out on the wicket, bowled many loose balls later on in his spell.
Gary Kirsten, the India coach, admitted India's intensity dropped a few notches. "You have to create a lot of opportunities and I don't think we bowled well enough today to create those opportunities," Kirsten said. "We didn't build pressure for long enough, there were a lot of four-balls at crucial times. And when you rely on one opportunity, without creating more opportunities, guys are going to make mistakes on the field."
The situation was brought under control by Kumble, who contained despite his left-hand being heavily bandaged, and Virender Sehwag, who finally reached his maiden five-wicket haul by bowling Cameron White after being denied twice by dropped catches.
India's mindset was further revealed during the 13-over passage before stumps. They'd barely added to their first-innings lead of 36 before losing Sehwag, at which point they sent in a nightwatchman. Ishant Sharma was duly dispatched by an accurate bouncer from Stuart Clark.
The double-blow late in the day and an injured Kumble in the tail gave Australia bragging rights, which Michael Clarke was quick to exercise. "I think we can bowl them out tomorrow," Clarke said. "India won't set us a target, they showed that by sending out a nightwatchman tonight. We know only one team will be trying to push for a result tomorrow."
Kirsten, however, defended the decision to send in Ishant. "Certainly, in all the cricket I have played in my time, and it's no different here, we always ask the No. 3 or 4 batsman if they want a nightwatchman. And it was requested that a nightwatchman be used. This is what happens every single time, in every situation, and there are very few batsmen who don't want a nightwatchman." But in following the norm India had put two men who had bowled 65 overs between them at No. 2 and 3.
Clarke was correct in assessing that, the final result notwithstanding, there was only one team harbouring thoughts of winning going into the final day. "We are 79 ahead. We've to go and bat for a session and a bit tomorrow to get ourselves into a strong position and see what happens," Kirsten said. "But the wicket hasn't done too much, and it's been good to bat on. So we are running a little bit short on time."
Over the last two years, India have had important triumphs away from home. They have also been the only team to consistently challenge Australia. They now have a bowling attack with depth and variety: they can even think of playing only one spinner in India and still be effective. This team should be striving to be No. 1 before all their great batsmen retire. Idiosyncratic brilliance has often been India's strength but, on a day like today, they needed regimental discipline to stay switched on and fulfill their aspirations.