India 340 for 6 (Dhawan 96, Rahul 80, Kohli 78, Zampa 3-50) beat Australia 304 (Smith 98, Labuschagne 46, Shami 3-77, Jadeja 2-58, Saini 2-62, Yadav 2-65) by 36 runs
For the second series in a row, India stayed alive having fallen 1-0 behind and lost the toss in the second, thanks again to batting full of intent that gave their bowlers a total they could defend. In doing so, they might even have found a solution to their biggest problem in ODI cricket post Yuvraj Singh: middle-order batting.
India began the series looking to find space to squeeze KL Rahul in the top order. Instead, batting at No. 5 with that experiment lasting only one match, Rahul responded with a 52-ball 80 to take India to 340 after they threatened to end up with little over 300 despite fifties from Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli.
India lost wickets in two braces, which reduced them to 198 for 3 and 280 for 5, but Rahul played a part in pulling India out of strife on both occasions. If it was Adam Zampa's analysis of 3 for 50 kept India in check, India's spinners Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav rocked Australia in the middle overs with two big wickets each. Jadeja kept India in the contest with tight overs and wickets of Aaron Finch and Marnus Labuschagne, and Yadav ended the chase with the strikes of Steven Smith and Alex Carey in the same over. It helped that there was no dew, something Kohli had predicted at the toss.
Smith missed out on a hundred by two runs. He wasn't the only man to fall in the 90s. Like the openers did in the must-win match against West Indies, it was Dhawan who made India's intent clear with a 90-ball 96. He started with a lovely straight-driven boundary first ball, and cared more about the team's scoring rate than his century. He had scored 35 off the last 18 balls when he went to hit another boundary but managed a top edge to long leg off a Kane Richardson short ball. As he had done when setting up India's win against Australia in the World Cup, it emerged he had batted on with a serious injury, this time a blow to the unprotected ribs. He is expected to be okay for the final game on Sunday.
Intent was apparent from the other end too with Rohit Sharma not shying from hitting in the air early on in the innings. India raced to 55 for 0 in 10 overs, and kept the run rate around six despite Sharma's fall to Zampa. This was despite Australia looking to attack, using up Pat Cummins' seven overs in the first 17.
Kohli made an effortless run-a-ball start to his innings, but Dhawan found a bit of a lull with the run rate dropping below six after the 20th over. In the 25th over, Ashton Agar bowled two successive dots to Kohli, but he was in no mood to take risks this early. Dhawan, though, had decided this was time for him to go. A slog sweep, a reverse sweep, and India had found the momentum again.
Dhawan's wicket brought about a scratchy innings from Shreyas Iyer, promoted ahead of Rahul. It ended with an ugly hoick against a full Zampa delivery, putting India under pressure. Australia looked to push on, going to their wicket-takers, but Kohli and Rahul hit two boundaries each off Cummins and Mitchell Starc's overs. Rahul soon began to dominate, scoring 42 in the 78-run partnership with Kohli.
In the 44th over, when Kohli looked to hit the next gear, hitting in the air for the first time in the match, he mis-hit Zampa to long-off for a relay catch. Manish Pandey's soft dismissal left Rahul with only Ravindra Jadeja as a recognised batting hand and six overs to go. Many a time India have gone wrong from there, but Rahul unfurled some attractive shots against the best bowlers Australia had to offer. The highlight was an inside-out flat six off Starc, who was consigned to his second-worst analysis in terms of runs conceded and his first wicketless match in 15 outings.
The significance of Rahul's innings shows in how this was the first time since 2013 that an Indian batting at 5 or lower had scored a fifty at a strike rate of over 150 when setting a target. Between two such efforts by India, 67 batsmen have done it overall. The last man to do it for India was MS Dhoni. Rahul would further emulate Dhoni with a quick stumping to dismiss Finch.
Before that, Jasprit Bumrah had put on a clinic with a kind of spell that doesn't gets mentioned in the aftermath of an ODI. There was no wicket taken but he troubled Finch on both the inside and outside edge often. There were successive maidens too. In between David Warner had fallen to a stunning catch by Pandey. Yet such is the nature of ODIs that Australia looked well on target with Finch and Smith adding 62 for the second wicket.
The stumping decision was a 50-50 call that could have gone either way, but there was no doubt that Jadeja had bowled a beauty to turn the ball past Finch's edge. The wicket didn't bring India relief. Debutant Labuschagne began smoothly, matching the man he tries to emulate shot for shot. Boundaries and singles kept flowing easily, putting Yadav under the pump. The run rate soon crossed six.
Again, Jadeja dragged Australia back in partnership with Navdeep Saini by stacking up dots. Smith didn't throw it away despite the slowdown but Labuschagne ended up chipping Jadeja to long-off. At 178 for 3 in the 31st over, Australia were still in the contest. Especially with Smith turning up another gear, looking to take toll of the spinners before one extra fielder went out for the last 10 overs,
Smith and Carey brought it down to 122 required in 13 overs, with Bumrah's four remaining overs increasingly becoming the key. Facing the heat, Yadav started his ninth over having conceded 57 already. He showed heart by slowing his pace down, creating indecision in Smith with a wrong'un outside leg. He stayed slow, drawing a soft chip from Carey for a catch to extra cover. Three balls later, he bowled another wrong'un to Smith, who got undone by the utter slowness of it and ended up playing on.
Game, set and match right there with Yadav taking more than one wicket in an over for the 13th time, six more than anybody has done in ODIs since his debut. The fast bowlers then finished it off in style, but there was some cause for concern for India: Sharma hurt his shoulder when making a diving save at the boundary and is unsure for the decider in Bangalore.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo