IND vs AUS: Australia’s Nathan Lyon takes 8, India stare at defeat in Indore

IND vs AUS: Silence descended swiftly at the Holkar Stadium. Some had their hands on head; some stared blankly into the waning sun, some turned their heads away and began to leave their seats. A supremely composed knock from Cheteshwar Pujara had woken up the audience from the post-noon nap and filled their hearts with hope and joy. The stands turned livelier, heaving with the prospects of a comeback. But just then, shredding the last shreds of hope, Steve Smith, at leg-slip, flung low and quick to his right and pouched with one hand a glide off Pujara, like a spider would a fly.

The passage captured the narrative of the day — one of long pauses and spontaneous thrills. As opposed to the violent tunes of Day One, this was a day of slow riffs interspersed with sudden, high-tempo notes. It was a day culled from the pages of Boycott’s era rather than the Bazball milieu, and at the end of it, Australia would fancy themselves in hunting down the target of 75, barring a miracle of epic-scale.

The match would seem to flow smoothly, like a river in autumn, before it would furiously explode, like after a monsoon downpour. The scorebook would lie — 16 wickets on the day implies dramatic, thrilling action. But it was rather a day of old-fashioned attrition, of being cold and calculative, patient and persistent. Bowlers had to labour for wickets, batsmen had to toil for runs under the baking Indore sun. The day see-sawed, supremacy of the game switching hands, but everything unfolded incrementally rather than hurriedly, as though it was a longer day than usual, as though there was more action than it actually transpired.

The game slow-burned for most of the day, seldom catching fire. For an hour in the morning, India’s bowlers restlessly ploughed for a flurry of wickets that would put them back in the game. Mohammed Siraj would get a look-in; all of Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel were rotated in wishfulness that someone would bargain a wicket. The strip seemed largely anaesthetised, but then it would suddenly wake up and pull out an odd party-trick, as if to say that it is still conscious, and return to sleep again. Nothing untoward happened, even as Jadeja and Axar tried too hard to coerce the evil side of the pitch.

Then, soon after the drinks break, Ashwin produced the breakthrough, removing the stubborn Peter Handscomb, who chewed up 98 balls for his 19. This was no trick of the pitch but the craft of Ashwin, who sow the fear of lbw in Handscomb’s mind by probing the middle-and-leg stump line from around the stumps, making him more conscious of the bat coming across the front-pad. Then came Umesh Yadav and scythed through the lower order, orchestrating a dramatic collapse, Australia losing six wickets for mere 12 runs.

Hope flickered again. An 88-run lead is daunting enough, but the second and third sessions tend to be relatively easier for batting, when the sun has sucked the moisture that makes the ball snap and bite. A roaring applause greeted Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill to the crease. Every run was applauded; every block was cheered; every four inspired delirium. Then, all smiles stopped altogether, when Gill slogged hideously to get bowled. Whirled a sense of foreboding that the day might end in tears.

For nearly 10 overs, Rohit and Pujara revived belief, displaying composure and common sense. Then the inspired Lyon gobbled up Rohit, who misjudged the length to be trapped in front. Ensued another dreary stretch of silence when the gazes of the spectators wandered aimlessly and their focus drifted. Excitement burst forth again, when Kohli crashed the tiring Matthew Kuhnemann through covers. There was something about Kohli, who looked assertive and defiant to end his century drought. Perhaps, in the blood-rush of the moment, he pulled a ball he judged was short, but it kept just a fraction low to blast his pads. It was a marginal decision, in that the review reckoned all three parameters as the umpire’s call. On such fine margins hinge the outcome of a match. Kohli was distraught, and the crowd gasped in despair.

But there was still hope; after all it’s a country obsessed with miracles. Assurance assumed the frame of Pujara, who produced a masterclass on subduing a turner. He was impenetrable against his nemesis Lyon, defending him robustly on the front-foot, stepping out to dishevel his lengths and making him resort to unusual fields and plans. Such was his conviction that he glided out to the pitch and drove him through cover. He would flick, cut, drive and punish anything marginally punishable with aplomb to help India erase the deficit and swell the lead, and hardly ever did he look fazed.

Shortly, Shreyas Iyer kicked in with a heap of boundaries, including a brace of sixes. In six overs, 35 runs were accrued. Australians seemed genuinely worried. Then with the game on a delicious balance, Usman Khawaja pulled off a stunner to nip Iyer’s charge. Iyer unleashed a full-bloodied but aerial flick off Mitchell Starc and the crowd leapt off their seats, certain that the ball was destined for the ropes. But Khawaja intervened, stretching his elastic limbs to grab the catch and ensure that he held onto it. But hope sprung again, as the on-field umpires consulted with their television counterpart to verify if the catch was clean. With stifled breath and a prayer on their lips, they craned their necks to the corner of the field towards the giant screen. Seconds later, the heartbreaking message flashed on the screen and the stands fell into silence.

Pujara would soldier on, like a soldier fiercely guarding his last bunker, though he kept losing his accomplices. And then with the score at 155, he too departed, and India could add just eight more runs. The downbeat crowd lingered on, cheering the team, assuring that they would return on Friday morning in the hope that the miracle that had deserted them on Thursday would finally arrive.

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