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Match Analysis

Patient Australia made to grind hard for big rewards

Unlike Indore, Ahmedabad has been a toil and slow-burn for the bowlers, but the visitors haven't wavered yet

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
There was a comment from Daniel Vettori, Australia's assistant coach, before the final Test that he didn't have much to offer the current cohort of spinners when asked for firsthand advice about bowling on India's dustbowls. By and large, he recalled, when he played in India the pitches started flat and would often be a war of attrition.
He may, therefore, have had more familiar flashbacks as the Ahmedabad game unfolded on one of the more docile surfaces produced in India over recent times, although that is worthy of a caveat: the amount of turn has increased each day and as the pitch bakes the pace of the game could yet change over the final two days. For now, however, it has been a toil for the bowlers.
In Indore, Steven Smith played with his field almost every delivery at some stages of the game, but that was because so much was happening on the surface. He admitted at times he was almost chasing the ball but thought a chance could pop anywhere. On this surface, he had to get inventive, but to try and conjure a breakthrough. There were signs early that he would go through his playbook when he had three leg-side catchers for Rohit Sharma as Mitchell Starc sent down a spell of bumpers.
Later on he opted for a 7-2 leg-side field against Cheteshwar Pujara. There was a ring of three fielders from midwicket to square leg with Smith himself stationed at leg slip hoping for a chance to repeat his remarkable catch. This time the edges were far less prevalent. When Cameron Green came on for his first spell of the day, Alex Carey cast a lonely figure behind the stumps with a brace of catchers instead at both short cover and short midwicket.
For Australia's spinners this was a different challenge in front of them. There was going to be no running through India this time. Rewards were hard-earned.
Nathan Lyon shouldered the burden and when he eventually won an lbw against Shubman Gill to end a superb century, it was his 20th wicket of the series making this the most successful of his three visits to India. In a series where the round-the-wicket line has also been the most common sight, it was just his third scalp when coming over.
"I feel like I bowled better today than I did in Indore," Lyon said after a day where he sent down 34 overs. "We knew it was a grinding day, it is a very similar wicket to what we faced in Pakistan 12 months ago, so for the boys to stick at the plans and shut down the scoring, when you bowling to guys like Gill and Virat on surfaces like this [it] can be challenging."
Smith's use of Todd Murphy was initially curious with him not introduced until the 32nd over. In the rare balance of playing three specialist spinners, they have all been told not to take it personally when they aren't in action, but Murphy has been excellent throughout so it felt a lengthy wait. When he opened his wicket tally, it was another lovely piece of bowling as he straightened one just enough from round the wicket to trap Pujara.
Left-armer Matthew Kuhnemann was the lightest used of the trio but had extracted the first wicket when he lured Rohit into driving a touch early and offering a catch to short cover. He would only bowl another eight overs for the day.
"It's a big moment for the two young spinner and I think they bowled exceptionally well," Lyon said.
As referenced by Lyon, at times the play felt reminiscent of the Lahore Test against Pakistan last year. On that occasion the home side were responding strongly to Australia's first-innings total before Starc and Pat Cummins blew the game open with a burst of devastating reverse swing. Smith tried for something similar here, but the ball refused to really go. Green found some movement but there was little on offer for Starc when he operated from round the wicket for a burst, hiding the ball as he prepared to deliver.
That angle from Starc meant he spent less time than he could have attempting to pound some footmarks outside the right-handers' offstump for the offspinners, but Lyon did not believe it would have made a huge difference.
"That wicket is pretty hard out there so there's not many footmarks at all," he said. "We may see it start to go up and down a little bit more, but even talking to Starcy he's putting in a lot of effort and the ball just seems to be stopping in the wicket."
Australia still have a hefty advantage to work with but now just two days to make the most of it if they are to leave with a share of the series which looked a very unlikely prospect a couple of weeks ago.
"These are the type of Test matches that are won in the last half an hour of day five, and these are the type of Test matches you want to be a part of," Lyon said. "The hard grind with a potential great reward at the end of it. They're challenging, but we're all up for a challenge."
If either team can find a way to win the game deep in day five, the end of this series is not going to lack for drama. It will just have been a slow-burn to get there.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo