India v Australia

Dharamsala dreaming

Few expected Australia to be here. Heading to the fourth and final Test Match in India with a strong chance of winning the series. Actually. Nobody predicted this.

India are red hot at home and they are frothing to beat Australia. They had a massive chance to go 2-1 up today in Ranchi. Personally I thought we were done. 2 wickets down, 130odd behind on 1st innings and heading into the fifth day. Chances were Jadeja and Ashwin were going to murder our top order.

After touring the Taj Mahal at dawn and then heading to the Agra Fort we headed to a shop to examine some marbel scultpures. All out of our price range. Conversation soon turned to cricket. Away from the hotel’s wifi we had no internet and needed a source of information. It wasn;t far

I spotted a young lad supposed to be selling gifts, but preoccupied by his phone. He was grinning. I guessed he was either talking to a flame or he was on CricBuzz and India were taking wickets. It was the latter.

A few blokes laughed after they saw our faces when the news broke. Smith was gone and we had lost 4/75 and were still 70odd runs behind on 1st innings. Surely we were gone.

Five hours and 124 runs later we were still alive. Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb had batted defiantly and resisted the predatory Indian spinners. The record books will show a draw, but this partnership and the performances by Smith and Maxwell then Pujarra and Saha were of supreme quality. On a pitch that had looked like rolled mud on day one we were treated to memorable batting.

Virat Kohli certainly wasn’t interested in offering an easy hand shake for a draw near the end. As the minimum overs remaining fell below 10, and Australia’s lead grew past 40, one might have expected the call for a draw. But Kohli pressed on, perhaps dreamily imagining that his bowlers could finish Australia and then chase 40 odd from 4-5 overs. A fanciful idea that demonstrated his competitive spirit and desperation for a result.

So here we are at 1-1. Kohli and India are under huge pressure to win. For Australia, a win here is the holy grail. Imagine having a life long dream to watch Test cricket in India, gambling your travel on the last Test of the series and it materalising as the great decider in the foothills of the Himalayas. What a thing!

We all head to Dharamsala in the far north of India in the coming days for what will be an explosive climax.

Shortly after celebrating the draw and relishing the prospect of the decider I peered out my hotel window and saw some kids playing cricket in a field. I hesitated for a moment and then scrambled to get my shoes on to head down and ask to join in. The kids were delighted, they tossed me the ball straight away. I was lucky enough to have a bat and a bowl before heading off buzzing from the experience of playing some backyard cricket in India. I only stayed about 15 minutes as more kids were coming down from the surrounding building and racing across the fields.

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Know when to declare: Smith gets it right amid Test Match feast

For cricket lovers, the period between Christmas and New Year was a veritable Test Match feast. Three Boxing Day Test matches in three time zones proved that utopia exists, in short spurts.

Early risers caught the first session of New Zealand v Sri Lanka, then after sneaking a beachside nap, devoured the bulk of the day watching India tackle Australia at the MCG. Seriously pushing their luck, some blokes even got amongst South Africa v the West Indies in the evening… but the Melbourne Test was the main caper for Aussies.

Although many Australians were incensed by Steve Smith’s decision to bat on during day five, the drawn Test in Melbourne ensured that Australia regained the Border-Gavaskar trophy from India. But the series win was muted by the great declaration debate.

Australia closed day four about 320 ahead. An early declaration was expected on day five, setting up a chase to win, or defend to draw, scenario for India.

It was supposed to be an exciting finale. A formidable and aggressive Indian batting line up were expected to chase around 350 off about 90 overs, a difficult but achievable task. However, the declaration did not come until lunch, with Australia 383 ahead.

Know when to declare

On a flat, batsman-friendly-deck I believe, give or take three or four overs, it was the correct decision.

The morning session was disrupted twice by intermittent rain. As long as showers persisted, Smith was happy to let Shaun Marsh and the tail bat India out of the match, and the series. Had Australia declared earlier, they may have bowled 2-3 overs on a wet outfield, been interrupted by rain again, then faced 80+ overs with a wet ball, seriously damaging their chances of taking 10 wickets.

All fast-bowlers will tell you that bowling with a wet cherry is not desirable, so until the showers abated, Smith sat on the fence. By then, Marsh was in the nineties, so they hung on a little longer. When Marsh ran himself out for 99, the declaration followed.

Many punters expressed outrage at Smith’s tactics. Channel Nine, Fox Sports and other agencies ran public polls and the majority believed the declaration came far too late. In ridiculously disproportionate rants, some writers even slammed Smith’s future captaincy credentials.

But far too many have neglected the conditions and the state of the series, somehow believing that the public’s desire to be entertained was, or should be, the dominant factor in Smith’s reckoning.

Nevertheless, Australia nearly pulled off a win, reducing India to 6/174 before Smith and Dhoni, with four overs remaining, shook hands and called it a day.

That decision is most baffling to me. You need four balls to take four wickets, Australia had 24 remaining. The top order was gone, Dhoni and Ashwin were resisting, but if one of those had been removed, three genuine tail-enders would have been exposed.

Where to for the West Indies?

Meanwhile in South Africa, a depleted West Indies battle for dignity against a transitioning, but still very good, Proteas side. The Caribbean collective were annihilated by an innings and 220 runs at Centurion before Christmas, then rain destroyed the latter half of their encounter in Port Elizabeth. The West Indies are 2 down, and still trail by 4 runs in the second innings of the third Test at Newlands.

While their national side struggles away in South Africa, several West Indian stars are currently playing in Australia’s Big Bash League. The clash of schedules and priorities is not new, but it’s becoming unsustainable. The ICC must act decisively or cricket risks permanently losing one of its great regions. Who is next?

The Black Caps

Things are better for the Kiwis. New Zealand have won seven, and lost only four of their last 17 Tests. Currently, the Black Caps are one nil up against Sri Lanka, but thanks to a brilliant double century by Kumar Sangakkara are under the pump in the second Test. A big innings from young gun Kane Williamson is needed; the hosts are five down and only 118 ahead in the second dig.

Fourth Test, Sydney

Tomorrow, Australia’s fourth Test begins against India in Sydney. Mitchell Johnson has been sidelined by a troublesome hamstring, replaced by Mitchell Starc.

After the resignation of MS Dhnoi – who retired immediately after the Melbourne draw – a new era hails for cricket’s biggest player. Virat Kohli will lead the Indians. He is a great batsman, but displays hints of immaturity and petulance, unbecoming of a successful leader. At 26, he has a lot to learn; Kohli promises India will be an aggressive unit, one that will meet Australia’s combative brand of cricket, front on. Sydney will be an interesting spectacle. The needle between Kohli and several Australians has been epic already, with Kohli nicknamed the “spoilt brat”.

For the Australians, emotions will be flowing as they return to the scene of Philip Hughes’ death. Will the mental and physical strain of events over the past five weeks, prove too much for Australia?

Kohli struck in helmet: Indian captain ducks into Johnson

India have just lost their second wicket and stand-in captain Virat Kohli, the world’s 2nd most marketable sports star, arrives at the crease. A fired up Mitchell Johnson has removed Murali Vijay, caught behind for 53. Vijay looked set and was headed for a big score, before Johnson executed the quintessential fast-bowler’s wicket. Vijay’s fluent footwork and confident stroke play was obliterated by an over laced with unpredictable short and full pitched bowling.

Johnson then angled a perfectly pitched teaser across the right hander in the next over, and Vijay’s feet were stuck in mangrove mud. His hands offered a reactive stab at the passing ball and the result was a fine edge snaffled by Haddin. But I digress, Johnson’s first ball to Kohli is my focus.

Kohli ducked into a Johnson thunderbolt, taking the full brutish force in the front of the helmet. The Australian players and the umpire reacted immediately and surrounded Kohli to check his health; more evidence of the impact of recent events. Johnson was visibly shaken, but Kohli was fine and went on to score a brilliant hundred.

The media have made an enormous fuss about this and some commentators, from outside the game, have repeated their ridiculous call to review the bouncer.

But let’s be clear, it was not even a bouncer.

It was a waist height ball and Kohli, for whatever reason (probably poor judgement), ducked headlong into its path. It was reminiscent of a similar incident several years ago at the same venue. Sachin Tendulkar was struck somewhere on the shoulder after ducking into a thigh height Glenn McGrath delivery. He was given out plum LBW.

Day four is about to kick off. India are rattling along at 5/369 only 148 runs behind Australia. It’s a great Test match but the 60 overs lost to rain and poor light – unseasonable for Adelaide in December – may annul a result. Adelaide provides a great pitch to bat on, and Australia’s three centurions – Warner’s fine 145, Clarke’s “courageous” 128 and Smith’s 162 not out – had set Australia up.

The weather pushed Clarke into an overnight declaration and India’s batsmen have responded well. Something magical will be needed to extract a result for either side, almost certainly from one or more of the bowlers. The stage is set for the divisive Nathan Lyon. His dismal performance against Pakistan in the UAE and then a barren run in Shield matches caused myself and others to question the merit of his selection.Two good wickets yesterday act like a dam against a swelling river of public discontent. He needs wickets. He needs to bowl Australia to victory. Surely selection cannot be sustained on the promise of future success or the odd productive day.

Can Lyon do it at Adelaide or will India’s remaining batsmen set a lead and make in-roads into Australia’s inconsistent batting order? Australia are vulnerable given the mental pressure this side has endured since the tragic death of Phil Hughes.

Feed the dogs: Test cricket is back

The stomach dogs are barking, they must be fed. Their thirst for battle and starving demand for a cricket contest must be appeased. A fiery beginning on a GABBA green top usually satiates their relentless desire, but unscripted events have delayed salvation.

The southern summer does not begin on 1 December, it arrives with the first ball of an Australian Test. Desperate fans crave the moment.

Cans of ice cold beer will be heard cracking across the weather battered southern land this afternoon and couches will get a hammering, because just as hot thunder storms smash the east coast from the Victorian border all the way to Cairns, Adelaide has provided a sparkling blue sky for Test cricket.

Finally the dogs will rest. The scoop of chips and never ending summer snaps into action with four DRS-less Test matches: Brisbane next week, then Melbourne and Sydney.

Recent seismic events are well publicized and although speculation about bouncers and helmet safety may continue in the background, today we move on and get back to watching quality cricket. India arrived in Australia to compete aggressively and attack Australia’s shaky batting order. One billion Indian fans demand it. They will not back down from this intent. Bouncers will be bowled and tactics of torment will be deployed. This will be significant contest.

David Warner has rocketed into action with a run a ball start placing Australia at 2/88 approaching lunch. Rogers and Watson the men out. Clarke is fit and playing and Ryan Harris returns to bolster the bowling, while Virat Kohli assumes the Indian captaincy from the injured MS Dhoni.

Summer is all around you.