Aussies have the last say

It was a Test of several twists and turns. There were times when India seemed to hold the aces. At the end of it all, Australia eked out a four-wicket win on a tumultuous Day Four. S. Dinakar reports.

There were moments of inspiration for India. But then, these alone are not enough for a team to win a Test. More so in Brisbane, an Australian fortress. The men in baggy green have not lost a Test here in 25 years.

India competed but Australia had the last say. It was a Test of several twists and turns. There were times when India seemed to hold the aces. At the end of it all, Australia eked out a four-wicket win on a tumultuous Day Four. It was a famous come-from-behind verdict for Australia in Steven Smith’s first Test as captain. He led from the front.

There were so many elements to this match, from heat to injuries, from spirit-lifting performances to sensational comebacks that made the Test captivating.

Opener Murali Vijay’s monumental 144 on a first day Gabba track that had typical pace and bounce was an outstanding innings by an Indian batsman.

The Gabba is among the most challenging pitches for a batsman from the sub-continent. The ball can climb menacingly and move off the seam with pace.

Vijay got right behind the line, swayed from the short-pitched deliveries with his eyes on the ball, judged the line and the bounce capably to leave deliveries just outside the off-stump and got back on to his back-foot for some telling strokes.

This was high quality batting. The manner in which Vijay blunted Johnson on Day One has to be among the better exhibitions of batsmanship by an Indian in recent times.

Vijay wore the attack down and as the day progressed the heat and the humidity took its toll on the Australian pacemen. Mitchell Starc had sore back and ribs, debutant paceman Josh Hazlewood suffered cramps and Mitchell Marsh hurt his hamstring.

Vijay said later, “I always like to play against Australia. When I was a kid, I used to see a lot of knocks played by Sachin paaji against the Aussies on the video. I also saw Dravid get that double hundred in Adelaide and win the Test for us.”

The batsman added, “Those were inspiring moments. And V. V. S. Laxman, every time he came up against Australia, he produced special things. Those are the knocks we have seen as youngsters.”

Vijay, not lacking in role models, found a valuable partner in Ajinkya Rahane. Light on his feet, good with the horizontal bat shots and strong in intent, Rahane came up with a valuable 81. India’s first innings 408 was a good effort considering Australia would have to bat last on a surface when the cracks could open up.

Hazlewood recovered from cramps to impact Day Two with a five-wicket innings haul on debut. He generated pace, extracted bounce and moved the ball away from the right-hander. His strikes allowed Australia to claw its way back.

With Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav in the attack, there was no dearth of pace. The duo had the more experienced Ishant Sharma leading the attack.

The pacemen struck at regular intervals, off-spinner R. Ashwin was steady from one end and Australia was struggling at 247 for six when the Indians suffered a momentary lapse of reason.

They picked the wrong man to sledge — Johnson — and the Indian pacemen repeatedly bounced at him. This only resulted in getting Johnson fired up.

Skipper Steven Smith, using his feet, piercing gaps off either foot and batting beautifully in a pressure situation, cleverly allowed Johnson to take the centre-stage.

Johnson hooked, pulled, cut, slashed, drove and just bludgeoned the ball to different corners for a 93-ball 88 that changed the complexion of the Test.

The Indian pacemen should have bowled good length at Johnson, moving deliveries away from the left-hander’s bat. Their bouncer ploy boomeranged and the Test changed course.

Smith reached a rousing century and there were handy innings from Starc, Lyon and Hazelwood — the sting in the Aussie tail was pronounced — and Australia ended up gaining a lead of 97.

After an innings of cuts and cover-drives, pulls and punches, Smith said, “I want to lead from the front with my performances. Hopefully, I have done that in this innings. But individual performances do not matter. Your team should do well.”

His team had lifted itself off the floor, too. Australia was now poised to strike. Vijay misjudged Starc’s bounce to play on late on Day Three and Johnson returned to haunt India again on Day Four.

This Indian batting line-up is prone to collapses and Johnson’s three-wicket burst in the morning settled the issue. He castled Virat Kohli, bounced out Rahane and nailed a disappointing Rohit Sharma outside the off-stump. It was a vicious spell of pace, precision and lift.

Soon Hazlewood trapped M. S. Dhoni, shaping to play across in front. Despite a valiant 81 from Shikhar Dhawan, India did not really have the runs to test Australia.

Man of the Match Smith said, “He (Johnson) certainly turned it on today for that little spell that cracked the game open for us.”

Smith acknowledged Johnson’s batting as well. “It was just outstanding the way he came out and batted in the first innings and took the bowlers on. It got them off their lengths a little bit. It probably helped me up the other end as well. That was a big turning point in the game, to get that partnership there with Mitch (Johnson).”

The Indians were undone by a wrist injury to Dhawan that prevented the left-handed opener from coming out in the morning of the fourth day. Kohli, instead, walked out with Cheteshwar Pujara and was soon dismissed.

Although Dhawan returned later, India had lost too much ground in the first 40 minutes.

Later, skipper Dhoni revealed, “We went to practice and the wicket wasn’t good for it. Shikhar (Dhawan) got hit and left. After that I had padded up and went in… He (Shikhar) was a bit uncomfortable but he didn’t react and say that he won’t bat. By the time I finished batting I found the wicket to be more uneven.”

Dhoni said, “He (Dhawan) came back to the dressing room and coach Duncan (Fletcher) and I were there. By then it was quite close to the start of play. And there we saw Shikhar wasn’t really 100 per cent fit to go in to bat. It was quite late and we could only give maybe five to 10 minutes’ notice to Virat (Kohli) that he would go in to bat.

“That’s one area which we could have handled a bit better. That’s the kind of a scenario when there is a bit of unrest in the dressing room. It’s not like a typhoon coming, it’s just that the calmness of the dressing room goes for a toss. It was a bit late to verbally resolve the problem,” he said.

The standard of umpiring in the Test was ordinary. Pujara (the ball went off his helmet grill) in the first innings and R. Ashwin in the second (the ball only brushed his back leg) were clearly not out.

Australia lost wickets on a chase of 128 — by now cracks were clearly visible on the surface — but the result of the contest was never in doubt after Johnson’s morning exploits.

India will rue the missed opportunity. The target for Australia could so easily have been over 300 — that would have been really testing on this surface. When it mattered the most, common sense deserted the Indians.