Border-Gavaskar Trophy: Thrilling NZ win sucks life out of final day’s play

When Kane Williamson frantically stumbled into the crease to guide New Zealand to a spine-tingling win in Christchurch, India celebrated their qualification for the World Test Championship final as they walked out after lunch in Ahmedabad.

Rahul Dravid, India’s coach, would walk out at the break to inspect the pitch, shadow-bat a forward defensive stroke, stare at the turf, shake his head, and walk back. Australia had inched to 73 for 1 at lunch. Dravid would repeat the routine at tea as well, with Australia on 158 for 2. A wicket each session on the final day; the pitch had refused to yield to any romantic notions about the final day of a Test series that started with chatter about a spicy pitch and ended with chatter about a lifeless pitch.

Not that the Indian spinners didn’t try. In some ways, collectively, the last-day effort was one of their finest performances. Even Axar Patel, who had been largely invisible in the series with the ball, had a probing spell, getting the ball to turn past forward prods.

Ravichandran Ashwin, who shared the player-of-the- series award with Ravindra Jadeja, teased both the moustachioed Travis Head and the clean-shaven Marnus Labuschagne with his loopy mix of off-breaks and straighteners. Head, in particular, was lucky to get away on a few occasions. Ashwin had him in a tangle with two kinds of deliveries: the one that lands on middle and leg, turning ever so slightly to threaten the LBW, and the ball that spins away from the off and off-and-middle line. Head would repeatedly try to play it – often with an angled bat as if he would do the Kohli’s bottom-handed square thrash, but would end up flailing in the air. At times, he would be on the forward lunge, trying to squirt out a cut, but in vain.

Luck was with him, though, and he would also punctuate his troubles with pre-determined charges down the track to successfully drive and loft.

It was a knock that had the twin effect of making one understand why the Australian selectors left him out of the first Test, and also made them understand why that was a mistake. Head has a knack of surviving, and the precious ability to put away the bad episode and focus on the next ball. In some ways, Head would form the Australian narrative of the series – from his ejection to re-establishment.

Surprisingly, Labuschagne too had his fair share of problems against Ashwin and Jadeja. It’s a series that a batsman as good as him should look at with a mix of regret and hope. Time and again, he would look secure before a brain-fade would combust him. Like that fatal ungainly prod to Shami in the first innings, or the curious decisions even on the final day to press back to full-length balls and then let his hands bail him out, with the bat dangling at awkward angles.

Friendly banter

Steve Smith came out to bat in India for possibly the last time in a Test match. By then, though, the game had lost its fizz. He laughed with Jadeja and soon, the clock rewound to the old days when Sunil Gavaskar would mimic Abdul Qadir or Javed Miandad would imitate Bob Willis’ action and bowl a few balls. Here, there weren’t any mimics but Cheteshwar Pujara bowled some leg-spin and Shubman Gill some off- breaks as the game petered out to an early finish with the captains agreeing to call off the game at 3.20 pm.

There were a few other friendly photo-op moments as the two teams shook hands. Smith patted Gill, after presumably a kind word about his batting, or Kohli and Rohit gently hugged Smith. Ashwin and Jadeja would collect the award, and the latter would talk about how he was disappointed with his batting in this series. Ashwin would tell a kutti story about how Jadeja sat frozen for an “hour after he got out” in the first innings of the final Test. Dravid, who probably sweated the most about the pitches from the Indian camp this series, too was around, shaking and patting the players’ backs and later talking up the two young Australian spinners Todd Murphy and Matthew Kuhnemann. He even said that the Indian players told him that as a group, along with Nathan Lyon, this was the toughest spin unit they have played in a decade. “After Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, this Australian attack was the most challenging.” It was high and appropriate praise.

Australia’s finds of the series were those couple of young spinners, who weren’t even regulars for their first-class teams, but stepped up to test the Indians to the fullest. The Indians will take Gill’s hundred at Ahmedabad with glee, and see him as their Test opener for years to come.

In the end, a 2-1 series win to India was a fair reflection of the two teams, as Smith too would admit in the post-match conference. By the evening, after the players left for their hotels, a net was erected around the centre square. And seven sprinklers came on, dampening the outfield. The flat barren sluggish pitch was already furiously swept clean; the dust hung in the air for a while.

Once the dust settles on this series and it slips into the recesses of memory, a few events will stir up for recall: Jadeja’s match haul in the first Test, Axar-Ashwin’s batting in the second, Australia’s hour of madness in Delhi, Lyon tormenting Indians in the third, the unceasing pitch chatter, Ashwin’s fruitful toil on a dead pitch in the fourth, and the two prime ministers’ chariot ride around the arena in Ahmedabad.

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