March 9, 2017

It's 4am, do you know where your Test cricket is?

Tuning in to a cracker of a Test in a time zone more than five hours ahead of yours is quite the tonic

Virat Kohli has been in favour of using DRS, but was let down by the absence of HotSpot in Bengaluru © AFP

The Karnataka State Cricket Association Stadium, as it once was known, is no easier on the tongue than the place it became, the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, which was named after the fellow who served the KSCA for four decades and who reigned as president of the BCCI from 1977 to 1980. The world is a very different place today but one doubts the noise in the ground would have been much different then from the splendid cacophony that rang out upon the fall of each Australian wicket on Tuesday afternoon. I wasn't there but I could hear it, and sort of smell it too. Bengaluru might be the "Garden city" but alongside the jasmine and frangipani, cordite, cow-dung, smoke and curry linger in the air, much as they do in each of India's vastly different but equalling humbling major cities. With it comes the taste of a new India, a nation that will not lie down.

In exaggeration of this point, Virat Kohli took to whipping the locals into a feeding frenzy and by the time R Ashwin held on to the return catch that sealed the Australians' fate, their stomachs were full. This was a truly riveting Test match and from its wild turns of fortune came a magnificent victory. Kohli answered the question about his - and his team's - desire by assuming a totalitarian style of leadership. Without scoring any significant runs himself, he drove his players to fever pitch. Steve Smith's tourists, having won so thoroughly in Pune, might have wondered what all the fuss was about: India in India - pah! They won't be wondering now. New India has an edge so sharp, it will slit your throat.

I have been to the Chinnaswamy a couple of times, the first for a barnstorming World Cup quarter-final in 1996 when India got the better of Pakistan's finest ever front six - from Aamer Sohail and Saeed Anwar down to Javed Miandad - with Ijaz, Inzy and Saleem Malik along the way - only to cock up the semi against Sri Lanka in Kolkata. They were two firecracker nights. The past week at the Chinnaswamy has been no less combustible. It must have been fun to have been a part of it.

The lunch break seemed to take an age so I burnt some toast, before looking longingly at the peanut butter and licking it from a spoon. Eventually the players emerged into the bright Bengaluru afternoon. By the time I got to muesli and yoghurt, India were all but cooked

This time, I was in London. It occurred to me that I had not watched a Test match on television from start to finish since the day such a pastime became a job. I resolved to do something about this and set the alarm for ten minutes to four on Saturday morning. The ringtone fizzed through my system like an electric shock. I reached out to turn it off. The first ball I saw was two hours later and turned out to be the last before lunch, when Cheteshwar Pujara was ripped out by Nathan Lyon. "Blimey," I thought, "this looks an interesting pitch", and I made a cup of tea. The lunch break seemed to take an age so I burnt some toast, before looking longingly at the peanut butter and licking it from a spoon. Eventually the players emerged into the bright Bengaluru afternoon. By the time I got to muesli and yoghurt, India were all but cooked.

On commentary, Matthew Hayden said the pitch was pretty good, which suggested he had formed an opinion before play and was reluctant to let it go. Five thousand miles away, I saw balls spit and bounce, squirt and stay low. The pictures were superb, enhanced by the quality of the technology that brings us consistent light, contrast and clarity. The director chose tight shots of the players' faces to illustrate their intensity and concentration. The importance of the game was written across each forehead and reiterated by emotional responses to the ebb and flow. Replays were analysed with glee, as if a pitch that made the ball talk was something mystical and magical. A good commentator should manage to waffle through a day of 350 for 2 but give him 180 all out on a minefield and he must have you hanging on every word.

There was nice blend on the Star Sports feed: four Indians and three Australians. No Harsha Bhogle sadly but Ravi Shastri's unbridled passion and Sunny Gavaskar's wisdom combined nicely with Sanjay Manjrekar's thoughtful appraisals and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan's charm. Hayden provided random ideas, both whacky and wondrous, and stayed kind to the players; Michael Clarke went about his work in an earnest, opinionated and fearless manner, while Brett Lee gave us "underglove" - a good new word for the glove on the batsman's bottom hand, or was it for the part of the glove nearest to the ground on either hand? Maybe this was cleared up while I was having trouble with the Nespresso machine. Both meanings work, and though the word began as a subject of commentary-box amusement, it was soon adopted and shared.

Lyon bowled his offbreaks exceptionally well. There had been doubt about his place in the team for a while, along with a suspicion that the present captain was less empathetic to his humdrum days than the previous one. Up close and with Super slo-mo, we saw the ball ideally positioned as it left his fingers, to fly in an arc on the line wide of off stump that right-hand batsmen most fear. It swerved away a little before it dipped, pitched and then spun like a top, sometimes bouncing high and other times skidding low - "natural variation", the Aussies kept reminding us; bloody good offspin bowling, implied Shastri.

Four Tests in India will bulk up Matt Renshaw's CV like no other tour © Associated Press

There was a decent Saturday crowd but it was kept quiet. The stadium looked unchanged from my last visit eight years ago, though we were shown too little of it to be sure. The square was mown like a grid, which was distracting, but allowed one to imagine the players as chess pieces. The two kings, Kohli and Smith, moved their pieces forensically; the knights struck out at the pawns; the Indian castles were conquered and plundered. The Indians were bowled out for 189, their undergloves pummelled by Lyon's accuracy and persuasion. He had eight of the ten for just 50 runs, the best figures by any visiting bowler to India. No wonder that call him GOAT (Greatest of All Time). The facts support the fiction. He's a ripper bloke too, a country cricketer made good in the big city. In just one day, the goat had opened the gate for his team.

I made the 4am start on Sunday morning but was asleep again by 5. When I awoke, Matt Renshaw was still in, his face a picture of determination. It is a fresh face, more genial Wiltshire farmhand than drover of the Australian bush, and much preyed upon by the television director. He was born in Sheffield and a pal of sorts of Joe Root before the Renshaw clan upped sticks for the southern hemisphere. Now he and Root will go head to head for the Ashes, a challenge made less daunting after face-offs with Kohli and Co.

India bowled with admirable discipline to well-set fields. Surely Ashwin was on the brink of doing a goat - after all, the goat sort of admits he learned a lot of it from Ashwin. But no, the Ashwin seam was scrambled, so there was none of Lyon's alarming extra bounce and not much of his spin. Lyon had been a revelation, the seam rotating around its axis at the 45-degree angle that the orthodox spinner spends a lifetime hoping to perfect. Right now, I keep telling the commentators there is none of that from Ashwin, but they cannot hear. Then I think how much one sees when not looking so hard. Objectivity will be a new pursuit, I vow. Subjectivity is a dangerous path. A man called Benaud had these two worked out.

From 4 o'clock to 11 o'clock on Sunday morning Australia made 197 for 6, their lowest total in a full day's play since the standoff against MS Dhoni in Nagpur in 2008. I was there for that one and it pales compared to what we watched here. This was hardcore cricket, mock and counter-mock mixed into naked aggression and spite. Smith left the ball in a crazed fashion, staring down the bowler - mainly Ishant Sharma - who growled back at him. These were the hunters and the hunted, in a highly visible game, but who was who and who would break first? Television loves sport when it gets personal. Cameramen miss next to nothing and directors and producers urge on their commentators. Shastri roared and Hayden purred; by common consent it was tough out there. It was tough enough back here. I finished off my daughter's scrambled eggs and slumped into an armchair with the papers. Thank god that's over for another day, especially as the Nespresso machine is bust. Two gone now and Australia are 48 in front with four wickets in hand. The gate is still open.

These were the hunters and the hunted, but who was who and who would break first? Television loves sport when it gets personal. Cameramen miss next to nothing and directors and producers urge on their commentators. Shastri roared and Hayden purred

Okay, completely missed the start, having stayed up too late watching the World Golf Championship event from Mexico, where Dustin Johnson got the job done. I join in after lunch and am surprised to see that Australia are now struggling to get it done having blown the last four wickets for seven runs. Whoops. KL Rahul and Pujara have moved pretty smoothly to 84 for 1. Nothing in it now. A one-innings match, Australia to bat last. You cannot help but think of the collapses that haunted modern Australians. But, no worries, this was a different set of lads. No baggage.

Much the best entertainment of the day was the Kohli lbw, which was called against him and reviewed. Almost certainly, it is Kohli who led India's journey into the whole DRS shooting match. Rumour has it that first Sachin Tendulkar and then Dhoni fought against it, primarily because they didn't trust the predicted path of the ball when applied to lbws. Now I'm sitting at home, thinking cricket gods will save Kohli as a thank you and bless you for the change of heart.

We had the lot: Super slo-mo, UltraEdge, Real-time Snicko, Hawk-Eye but - big but this - no HotSpot. No idea why. The BCCI decided against it apparently, though the commentators didn't say that. Anyway, Kohli lost out and left in a tizz. Oh, to have been a fly on that dressing-room wall. He hit it okay, but the question was when. Before or after it struck the pad? No idea. Just not enough evidence either way, not to change the original decision. The point about umpire's call is that it passes the benefit of the doubt from the batsman to the umpire. Poor Kohli, hoisted on someone else's petard.

After this drama, Ajinkya Rahane took guard alongside Pujara and the pair of them saw out the day. They put on 88 in a tad more than a session; the highest partnership of the series, said the floating graphic above the pitch. Batting appeared to have become easier. India now led by 126 with six wickets in the shed. Riches!

Then Manjrekar and Shastri had the exchange of the match. "Is the pitch losing its vigour?" wondered Manjrekar. "It is a little slower and less spiteful but you still need luck to survive," replied Shastri. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," said Manjrekar. "The pitch has been seen by a dermatologist every evening of the Test match," added Shastri. All of which was put into clear perspective by Rahul at the pre-match interview, who said that in his experience with Karnataka, the third day was the best to bat and the fourth played tricks. So look out, Aussies.

If it's India-Australia, things will be boiling over © Associated Press

My notes for the fourth day go like this: 4am again, so thank goodness for tea, and marmalade on toast. And peanut butter from a spoon. And underfloor heating. On the subject of breakfast, after a review goes in Pujara's favour, Shastri says, "India have eaten something for breakfast, they've got the DRS right!" Nine overs later, Rahane is given out on review. Mitchell Starc is bowling very fast and full and the next ball crashes into Karun Nair's stumps. How England would have liked that ball bowled for them in December! The stadium is silent as the tall Australian runs in on a hat-trick; the people cheer when Wriddhiman Saha somehow nicks the searing and straight full toss onto his pads. The commentary is breathless, suitably reflecting the cricket and those of us watching it in all corners of the world. Hayden points out that Pujara has never been out in the nineties and then wishes he hadn't brought out the commentator's curse (I know a bit about that one, having done for both David Warner and Usman Khawaja of late). Well, I'll be damned. Next ball, Pujara fends into the hands of gully. Gone for 92, game on.

Ashwin plays the most beautiful cover drive and then gets a "worm-burner", says Lee. Josh Hazlewood is running through them now: 246 for 8, a lead of 159. Clarke says India are 50 short, Shastri reckons a lead of 200 is the grail. Umesh Yadav has a slog and Ishant, after a moment or two of sanity, prods a gentle ball from Steve O'Keefe (no, not Kerry's son) into the covers. Six wickets have fallen for 36. Rahul might be right. Australia need 188 to win.

The Indians come out like hyenas. The crowd goes nuts when Renshaw faintly gloves a beautiful delivery from Ishant. Smith and Ishant make cricket war. This is it now, Warner and Smith at the crease. Warner runs at Ashwin and pumps him into the stratosphere. Hayden calls the "courage" in the shot. At last Ashwin goes round the wicket and beats Warner's attempted sweep. Lbw? Yes! Or no? Warner reviews but seems unconvinced. Yes! Kohli's frenzied state is a sight to behold. Smith sweeps and drives. Shaun Marsh leaves a straightish ball alone that hammers into his pads. All India appeal. Never out. Out! Marsh should review but isn't that type. Australia only have one review left and save it for a howler. The replay proves this is the howler.

Smith is trapped in front of all three by another worm-burner, or molly-grubber as Richie Benaud used to call it. Oh no. After a chat with Peter Handscomb and a long look at the dressing room, he isn't allowed to review. That's no howler. He's gone. Kohli is furious with Smith for seeking dressing-room approval. Later, Smith calls this a "brain fade", which it was in every way. I don't think he was consciously cheating, that seems an unreasonable accusation to me. I think he was deeply wrapped in the game and the situation and the moment. It is so intense out there, it's, like, frightening; like cricket on speed. The umpires intervene, two Englishmen who churned out runs and wickets for their counties, looking to calm Kohli's Test-match state of mind. They are earning their coin. The whole scene is barely believable. Australia have lost now, of course. We all know that but the final rites are no less thrilling.

Ashwin has his mojo back, and his seam position. Mitchell Marsh plays three sublime strokes and then succumbs. So do the others. Australia lose their last six wickets for 11 runs. Ashwin has his 25th five-wicket haul, faster than any bowler before him, and today finishes with figures of 6 for 41. India have won by 75 runs, an unlikely result and margin after the first day.

Kohli's desire - an almost ferocious, animalistic desire - has been a remarkable thing to sit back and watch/admire/evaluate/judge. I hope he makes a hundred in Ranchi because watching him bat makes 4am even more worthwhile. So did this match. I'm tempted to have another crack.

The television pictures were terrific. The commentary most enjoyable. The pitch was sporty and became close to impossible when the low bounce gave the quicks an unfair advantage. In mitigation, watching spin bowling provides limitless fun. The cricket, well, it was a great advert for the game that so many of us love. You could not watch this and not approve, even if the IPL is more your thing. The teams are driven and passionate; there is a history between them and spicy it is too. I'm looking forward to some sleep but, yes, I'll be up at 4 next week I think - tea and toast at the ready.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments