It's the last ball before the mandatory overs are to begin. The players will go into the drinks break soon after. They will gather their thoughts, reassess where they stand and devise strategy. This is it right here. Barring torrential rain, or a shocking offer to shake hands with four overs left, we are not going anywhere.
India are tested for 15 overs. They have five wickets in hand. Ajinkya Rahane is playing beautifully on 48 off 116. Not too flash, not too subdued either. Just the kind of innings you need when saving a Test. You don't want the wolves to circle you by not playing any shots. And not only is Rahane keeping himself safe, he has played a part in keeping the volatile Virat Kohli calm in the face of continuous sledging, some of which he has brought upon himself. .
Josh Hazlewood runs in for the last ball before the mandatory hour. He digs it in short, just outside off, Rahane goes for the pull, the ball stops a touch, gets a little big, and he splices it up for a catch. India had lost a wicket first ball after tea. Now they lose one off the last ball before the mandatory hour. If they go on to lose the Test, Rahane is going to be roasted. The emotion of having come so close to drawing an away Test, which neither side has been able to do the last 13 times they have played against the other, despite rain disturbances in at least three of them, is going to take over. MS Dhoni and R Ashwin make sure India don't lose.
Which makes this the ideal opportunity to analyse the shot. Without the emotion. Without the hindsight. The pull brought India more runs in this Test than the cut, the off drive, the on drive, the sweep. Only the cover drive and the flick were more productive. With 83 runs off 44 pulls, the shot brought India more runs per ball than any other. They did lose two wickets to it, both on the final day, Rahane and nervous debutant KL Rahul. More batsmen got out defending: five. None fell to the cover drive, which suggests the pitch was quite true, and its bounce could be trusted when playing the pull shot.
Kohli and Rahane have scored the runs they have because they have been prepared to play their shots. They have lasted as long as they have because they have been prepared to play their shots. Kohli has spoken about how it has helped to not be overawed by Test cricket, to keep playing the way he has been in ODIs. India got only 70 overs to bat to save the MCG Test because they were prepared to play their shots at Adelaide Oval. That is what made Australia delay their declaration. Playing shots has helped India compete. It has also given them the dubious reputation that they can't bat time, that they can't save matches.
It is important for every batsman to tackle situations the way he thinks is best. Unlike the Indian bowlers, who mostly rely on the captain to feed them, the batsmen have their own independent methods. They have been given the freedom. They have played freely on this tour. M Vijay has tried to sway out of the line of it, has copped a few, whereas Kohli and Rahane have taken the short ball on. Even in this innings, both of them opened their accounts with pulled boundaries. Even though Rahul had just perished to one.
It is not just about the runs. You don't want the bowler to be able to bowl where he wants. Then he sets the field he wants, keeps bringing them closer, and then the chance of mistakes turning into wickets go higher. And it also clouds your mind if you are going against your natural game to just block, block and block.
More than the shot, it is the timing of it that will rankle both Rahane and the team. In the first innings too, he went to play an expansive shot in the over before the new ball became due. He was lucky a sitter was dropped. Here he got out an over before another landmark in the process of saving the match. India got away with just a few nervous moments, but he had left his job unfinished, which can come across as irresponsible with so many collapses in this batting line-up in the recent past.
Dhoni thinks the batsmen will get better with experience. The more they play, the more they become confident of their basic games, the more they will be able to tamper with it to suit the situation and the team's needs. It is good for Rahane that his shot didn't lead to yet another familiar Indian collapse. In his last Test, Dhoni saved his younger team-mate a scarring.
One thing is certain, though. Apart from M Vijay, every Indian batsman's game is built around attacking. While it has helped them compete it has also landed them in trouble. Truly excellent batsmen rise above the adrenalin that is pushing them into yet another drive. They understand the flow of the game, the big moments better than these batsmen have. Attack has been a good slave for them this series, but they shouldn't let it become a bad master.