The third day of the final Test produced only 166 runs in 86.4 overs and yet the contest was absorbing. India showed their hand early by deploying outrageously lop-sided fields which made it clear that if Australia wanted to score, their batsmen would have to reach out for deliveries wide outside the off stump. Were India overtly defensive? Or was their tactic a necessary measure? The arguments for both cases are strong. The bottom line, however, is that the strategy worked.
Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma bowled to the left-handers - Michael Hussey and Simon Katich - with eight fielders on the off side. The only man on the leg side was at mid-on. They complemented their field by bowling a line wide outside off stump. Katich chased and edged one in the second over but the catch was dropped. Thereafter he chose to be extremely cautious. Both batsmen were wary of the two slips in place and left numerous deliveries. Their cut shots were blocked by a fielder at point who had a third man and a sweeper as back-up. The drives were stopped by short cover and those that got past failed to beat extra cover and mid-off.
The suffocating effect was enhanced by the discipline with which Zaheer and Ishant operated. Had they dropped short, the batsmen would have had enough time to cut with power; had they over-pitched, they would have been able to drive straight. But they so rarely wavered in length that you could easily count the number of deliveries that weren't outside off stump. It was like a stuck record: the bowler delivered outside off, the batsman shouldered arms, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni collected.
India's plan was extremely defensive, but not negative. By persisting with the wide line, they were relying on a lapse in concentration from the batsmen for a wicket. Zaheer bowled closer to off stump than Ishant did but the left-armer usually dismisses left-handers with the ball that swings in towards the stumps. The field, however, demanded Zaheer's aim not to be at middle stump. Unless the batsmen played on, they would not be bowled. Lbws were out of the question.
The plan was understandable. India should have shut Australia out of the game by the end of day two but they had not. They should have scored 600 after winning the toss instead of 441. They took Jason Krejza lightly and lost wickets to unnecessarily aggressive strokes against him. Sachin Tendulkar had said losing five for 311 on the first day was too many. They lost their next five for 19 on the second. Australia were still in the game and even more so after India's bowlers bowled without direction last evening. Runs flowed at four an over and Australia reached 189 for 2 at stumps.
"We tried to attack yesterday but ended up conceding some runs," Ishant said after the third day. "So our plan for today was to be defensive because this was the only way we could have come back in the game. We just stuck to our plans as our captain told us to do. We were assigned different roles, and we all bowled according to our roles."
This morning's ploy was India's attempt to regain control over the match by delaying Australia's rate of progress. It might have even been seen as an attempt to draw the game and protect a 1-0 lead. The onus was on Australia to force the pace for they need the victory to draw the series. But they didn't.
Katich and Hussey didn't even try to force a field change by improvising to hit on the leg side or by lofting over the infield. They didn't attempt to alter lengths by stepping out of the crease like Matthew Hayden or Gautam Gambhir might have done. Instead they left deliveries, blocked, and left some more. Their approach was not one of a team that needed to set the pace.
Australia were so shackled by the off-side plan that the first attempt to hit the ball on the leg side was in the 12th over of the day: Hussey tried to pull Ishant but missed. The first time the ball was hit to the leg side was in the 18th over: Hussey pushed towards Ishant at mid-on. The first run on the leg side finally came in the 21st over when Hussey swept Harbhajan Singh to long leg. By the end of the first session India had conceded only 42 runs off 24 overs. They had also dismissed Katich who kept moving across his stumps to play the wide line and was eventually struck in front by an inswinger from Zaheer. Katich scored only 10 runs off 69 balls today compared to 92 of 120 last evening.
There were large-scale field changes whenever the right-hander - Michael Clarke - was on strike. Two fielders would cross over and form a 6-3 off-side field. The two extra men on the leg side - midwicket and long leg in addition to the mid-on - allowed Zaheer and Ishant to target the stumps. Clarke scored only 8 off 44 balls (a four came from a mis-field) and he fell by edging a delivery from Ishant that seamed away from him.
|Katich and Hussey didn't even try to force a field change by improvising to hit on the leg side or by lofting over the infield. They didn't attempt to alter lengths by stepping out of the crease like Matthew Hayden or Gautam Gambhir might have done. Instead they left deliveries, blocked, and left some more. Their approach was not one of a team that needed to set the pace|
The modus operandi changed when Harbhajan began bowling but the intent was the same. He went over the wicket to the left-hander and bowled a leg-stump line with a 6-3 leg-side field. The absence of a fielder at point ensured that Harbhajan would not be pitching anywhere close to off stump. Hussey tried to counter by sweeping and once by reverse-sweeping but he failed to raise the run-rate.
It was staggering that Australia did not make a concerted effort to thwart India after lunch. Their run-rate during the second session was lower than the first - 49 runs in 29 overs - and they had lost three wickets. Australia had begun the day trailing by 252 runs with eight wickets in hand and a run-rate of 3.85. They added only another 166 in 85.4 overs before being bowled out with an over remaining in the day. India's tactics were neither attractive nor in the best interests of Test cricket when spectator-numbers are thinning. The bottom line, however, is the end justified India's means.