Great theatre in Melbourne

Australia had its chances to force a victory, but it decided to play it safe and pocket the series. By S. Dinakar.

The pressure was intense. And there he was in the middle, battling to save a Test for India. Inside he must have been fighting a raging emotional fire.

The Indian captain’s face revealed little when he was finally offered a draw by Steven Smith with four overs remaining. He shook hands with the Australians, picked up a stump as souvenir, and walked back with his partner R. Ashwin.

It was also Dhoni’s last act in Test cricket. Later in the evening, everyone came to know that the Boxing Day Test at the MCG would be his final game in Tests.

For most part, the Test at the MCG lived up to the occasion. There was much tension in a game that twisted and turned. A result was possible on the final day when Australia delayed its declaration. Smith, his hands on the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, played it safe. And the 2-0 lead that Australia enjoyed was enough for it to win the series.

This was a match where all of India’s problems — an alarming tendency to collapse, lack of thinking and penetration while bowling at the tail, and ordinary fielding — came to the fore.

Towards the end of the game, the side showed some determination. But then, a series was lost.

Cricket is a lot about mind games and, for once, Australia might have feared an earlier declaration on day five considering India the onslaught by Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane in the first innings.

The spectacular strokeplay by Kohli (169) and Rahane (147) on day three was among the high points of the Test. The counter-attack was ferocious in nature; the ball was dismissed to distant corners of the ground, runs came in a cascade.

For the first time in 90 years, an overseas pair had added 200 or more runs at the MCG. A shoddy Australia put down catches, Kohli and Rahane made them pay. Much of the strokeplay had even the home supporters applauding.

This was an innings where some of Kohli’s straight drives scorched the turf. When Johnson bounced at him, he pulled the paceman ruthlessly. Both Kohli and Rahane were dismissive of spearhead Johnson, who was taken to the cleaners.

This was also a phase when Johnson and Kohli were involved in an acrimonious verbal exchange. The flashpoint was when Johnson, the bowler, tried to run out Kohli at the striker’s end. The speeding ball struck Kohli and then the chatting started. Sledging has been a serious issue in the series.

Later, in the press conference, Kohli said that the Aussies had called him a “spoilt brat,” during the day. And he revealed that Johnson had not shown any respect to him. “I don’t respect the person who does not respect me,” thundered Kohli after the day’s play.

The on-field spat took much of the focus away from the exceptional strokeplay of the two Indian batsmen.

It was a pity since, Rahane too, taking Johnson on, had cut and pulled with balance and timing. The lightness of his feet is his strength.

India had responded magnificently after the prolific Smith rallied with the lower order and the tail to take Australia to a massive 530 in the first innings.

Once, again the Indian pacemen overdid the short-pitched stuff and the Australian batsmen were able to fight their way out of a tough situation at 216 for five on day one.

Smith notched up a magnificent 192 of footwork and poise, temperament and character. This was his third century in as many Tests.

But then, the Indian meltdown on day three after the Kohli-Rahane show dented its chances.

India lost its last seven wickets for just 56 – debutant K. L. Rahul suffered a mental fade-out – and the visitor lost the initiative.

Dhoni’s men conceded a lead of 65 when they had the opportunity to go in front. Once again, the Aussies had a sniff of victory.

The surface was slower than a typical MCG wicket; the deviation off the track was not alarming too. The pitch, however, offered some turn to Ashwin on day four. The track did not break up though. This was a pitch where once a batsman applied himself, there were runs for him.

Left-handed openers David Warner, battling a painful thumb and a forearm, and Chris Rogers gave Australia a good start when India required quick wickets upfront.

Rogers — he has time to play his strokes — made a pleasing 69. His top-hand grip does enable him to essay some stunning drives down the ground.

Then another left-hander, Shaun Marsh, in a career-reviving innings, progressed to 99 before being tragically run-out. However, Australia’s pace of run-getting on the final day — it batted 23 overs to score 57 runs — did not reflect well on Marsh.

He had batted with some flair on day four when Australia was in trouble with Ashwin and Ishant, in a spin-pace pairing, combining well. But then, Marsh was subdued on day five. This might have been a part of the Australian game-plan too. The side wanted to ensure a series triumph first.

Set an improbable target, India settled for a draw, but lost wickets at regular intervals and that gave Australia more than a glimmer of hope.

Ryan Harris, after launching into the Indian bowling with a blaze of strokes in the first innings, bowled with heart and control in both innings, but Dhoni and Ashwin held on. India achieved a draw with four wickets left.