Test cricket is mainly a game of defence and patience. For the most part, batsmen defend or leave alone good deliveries, and wait for the loose balls to score runs off. Even in the highly attacking 169 that Virat Kohli scored in Melbourne, he either defended or left alone 141 of the 272 balls he faced. Usually batsmen spend around 70% of the time defending or leaving alone. Bowlers aim at bowling just outside off, just short of a driving length, denying batsmen easy shots, building pressure, joining the dots, and then getting them to edge balls. A majority of Test cricket is built on defensive strokes and leaves, and bowling dry.
Test cricket is hard work, but harder still is to create magic. That moment of inspiration when the batsmen are so in or the pitch so flat that line and length is not working. When the pitch is so difficult or when bowling so good that defending and leaving alone will get you out anyway. When men rise above the game and the conditions.
When the clock is ticking but the drop-in pitch is refusing to misbehave, when everything is hitting the middle of the bat, when you are deep into the third back-to-back Test match with only 20 overs to go and six wickets to pick, you need a man to rise above the conditions, you need some magic. On day five of Melbourne, if only for three balls, Mitchell Johnson created magic.
India's fifth-wicket partnership had thwarted Australia for close to 16 overs when Johnson began the second over of his fourth spell. The match was dying. Australia needed something. Ajinkya Rahane had faced 97 balls, Chetshwar Pujara 70. There was nothing in the pitch by way of seam movement or uneven bounce. Not much reverse swing either. Johnson began the over with a slower bouncer. At 78.8mph (all speeds from ESPNcricinfo's Hawkeye). Rahane tried to pull, as he had been doing to almost every short ball, but the ball ballooned under his bat. The next one was a proper bouncer, at 85.5mph, and Rahane had to pull out of the shot after shaping up to go for it because it had got too big on him.
Had Rahane been pushed back enough to now try a fuller ball and see if he plays from deep inside the crease? Johnson thought so. He bowled at a length, pitching middle, angling away towards just outside off, at 85.2mph, but Rahane was too good. He stepped forward, covered the line, met it with an open face, and took a single to mid-off. The hard work of the previous two bouncers was undone. The other batsman was on strike now. What a heartbreak.
Back to the drill then with Pujara. Johnson went round the wicket this time. Unlike Rahane, Pujara made a more pronounced trigger movement forward. Johnson let one rip short. At 86mph. It pitched well outside off, but came in with the angle skiddily. It got him flush in the helmet. Earlier in the series Johnson had let a hit on Virat Kohli's head affect him. This time he walked up and looked at the batsman from the corner of the eye. Assured he was fine, Johnson walked back. He stayed round the wicket, and delivered another bouncer, this time at 89mph. This wasn't that accurate, and Pujara got inside the line and let it sail over his right shoulder.
Now Johnson went wide on the crease. You could see from his run that he wanted to create that angle. Had you stretched the side crease longer, you would have seen the back foot cutting it before he entered into the delivery stride. In that final stride he got closer to the stumps, landing about six inches inside the side crease. Then he produced a slower offcutter, at 78.6mph. On a length it pitched, just outside off.
Pujara's front foot didn't move as far forward. He was nowhere close to the pitch of the ball, but he had to play at it. He played the angle, which should have carried the ball to middle and leg. Once he realised he was never getting to the pitch, and once the ball began to move against the angle, Pujara reacted naturally: he pushed his hands towards the ball, and his back leg moved towards its line, squaring him up.
The ball gripped sharply, went past the outside edge, and even though it was a slower ball it snuck past the back leg before it could arrive, hitting the top of off. This is what it would have been like to face Derek Underwood on uncovered pitches. Except that you don't expect this from modern fast bowlers. The moment the bail is disturbed makes for a great picture. Pujara's head is down, in line with his bat, he is front on, covering the whole stumps, but he is bowled. He has an incredulous look on his face, which continues for a couple of seconds more.
The cricket stumps are nine inches wide. They can be easily covered by a man if he decides to stand front-on as Pujara ended up. If you hit the pad with a ball that is hitting the top of off and has pitched outside off and is going considerably against the angle, you don't always get the leg-before decision. This one had to be precise. Slow enough to surprise Pujara and allow it time to grip, but fast enough to beat his back-leg movement. The line and length had to be exact. It had to follow a build-up, the tuning up of the band. It was all that. It was magic. Pure magic.
Nearly 23 years ago, at the same ground, in the final of the World Cup, the greatest left-arm bowler of them all bowled a similar ball to dismiss Allan Lamb. Even though this one didn't trigger a collapse to hand Johnson's team the win, Wasim Akram would have approved.