Defying lowly expectations derived from modern history in this part of the world, Australian batsmen Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb skilfully navigated their side to the safety of a crucial draw with India on the final day at Ranchi, maintaining the series ledger at one apiece.
The reward for Steve Smith’s gallant tourists is a blockbuster, winner-takes-all series decider in Dharamshala from Saturday. Common wisdom is that Tests in India speed up at their conclusion, and that if you find yourself batting on the final day, well, best of luck. When Australia lost two late wickets on the penultimate evening – including opener David Warner – the final script threatened to read that way.
It did again 30 minutes before lunch on day five when Smith, having batted so capably through the morning to that point himself, lost his off-stump when leaving a Ravindra Jadeja delivery for reasons best addressed by the captain.
The early toil shared between Smith and Matt Renshaw was considerable. But with both were removed in the space of three balls, India were again kicking with a strong breeze, still 89 ahead. Yet, it was in keeping with the oscillating nature of this series that projections of doom were virtually worthless.
As morning became afternoon, the pitch never exploded and nor did the brains of Marsh and Handscomb. In a stand of 124 runs in 373 delivers, the duo – with the former’s straight bat and latter’s nimble feet - denied two of the best spinners on the planet until the game was safe.
They all but ensured that the interrogation of Australia’s batting line-up would stop with them. The visitors had lost only Marsh and Glenn Maxwell by the time the captains shook hands at 4:25pm local time, and by then Australia had pushed the lead out to 52 with four wickets still in hand. India simply ran out of time.
It was between lunch and tea that the hardest work took place in the potentially trophy-saving union. After the break the only numbers that mattered for the two Australians were the 69 runs they trailed by and the four hours remaining on the clock.
Darren Lehmann explained before play that one would follow the other. They wouldn’t park the bus. Instead, he said, Australia would adopt a balanced approach to knock off the deficit in order to shift scoreboard pressure back onto Virat Kohli and his side. As a plan, it couldn’t have worked better.
Sixty-six runs were added in the middle session without the loss of a wicket. Handscomb was dropped at short leg within minutes of the resumption – a tough chance, but the only one. Shortly after a pair of boundaries from Marsh got them moving in the right direction.
Reaching for a third breakthrough of the day, Kohli took a gamble with his first review when Umesh Yadav struck Marsh’s pad. The bowler wasn’t all that interested, but it was referred anyway when it shouldn’t have been. It was evidence of India’s captain realising the game was now slipping away from him.
When Ravichandran Ashwin worked in tandem with his spin partner Jadeja for the first time for the day, it coincided with a swelling of Handscomb’s confidence. Suddenly he was dancing down the track to score and using the depth of the crease to defend with the same ease.
The Victorian collected three boundaries from one Ashwin over, twice clipping with superb timing to the mid-wicket rope, between times waiting on a shorter delivery to cut for the same result. All of a sudden the deficit was down to just 21, then single digits by the tea break.
Under no illusion that their job was quite done, both batsmen set themselves to remove what remained of India’s hope. Tense moments came in the first two overs after the resumption when Marsh’s bails were whipped off with his with his foot only just back in time; Handscomb then barely survived an LBW referral.
Before long Australia were in the lead and Marsh and Handscomb were partners in a 100-run stand. Handscomb reached his half-century first with a tuck to fine leg, and by then it was surely the most important innings of his Test career to date. Marsh’s response to his own 50 – which came from a beautiful cover drive off Ashwin –indicated how special this was to him as well.
Marsh fell for 53 to an inside edge off Jadeja, giving the spinner a fourth wicket. The Western Australian had faced 197 deliveries, and his job was more or less done. Handscomb finished on 72 when stumps were drawn, seeing off an even 200 deliveries himself.
In the meantime, first-innings centurion Maxwell came and went by offering a catch to silly point, giving Ashwin his only wicket for the innings. At that point India still had 7.2 overs to bowl and Australia’s lead stood at 38, but Handscomb quickly snuffed out any chance of a miracle, remaining with Matthew Wade when stumps were drawn.
The Ranchi recovery says a lot about the progress made by this inexperienced side. Arriving in India having lost their previous nine Tests in Asia, second innings collapses had been a permanent fixture. Not today. For that alone, Australia have thoroughly earned the opportunity become the second Australian side to triumph here since 1969.