Sydney: Cheteshwar Pujara was left to summon his trademark doggedness with skipper Ajinkya Rahane after India lost their openers in pursuit of an improbable 407, setting the stage for an intriguing final day of the third Test against Australia in which the visitors will primarily try to bat out three sessions here.
Having drawn flak for his 50 off 176 balls in the first innings, none would mind such an effort from India’s Test specialist after the visitors finished the fourth day on 98 for 2 largely due to a 71-run opening stand between Rohit Sharma (52) and Shubman Gill (31).
Rohit’s untimely dismissal at the fag end, trying to pull Pat Cummins, did hurt India but it’s two best defensive players Pujara (9 batting off 29 balls) and skipper Ajinkya Rahane (4 off 14 balls) were at the crease when stumps were drawn.
The pitch, with variable bounce and the dark patches acting like snake pits for Nathan Lyon, would pose its own set of challenges for a team with two injured batsmen in their line-up. Both Rohit (52 off 98 balls) and Gill (31 off 64 balls) showed admirable application under pressure but most importantly didn’t let the bad deliveries go unpunished.
The three cover drives off Rohit’s blade and a cross-batted straight drive of Gill were out of top drawer. Rohit, for good measure, pulled Cameron Green over mid-wicket for a six and they both looked comfortable while negotiating the Australian attack. It was after 53 years that an Indian opening pair had struck two 50 plus partnerships in the same Test Down Under.
Last time also it was in Sydney where Farokh Engineer and Syed Abid Ali had a decent outing albeit in a lost cause. It took a peach of a delivery from Josh Hazlewood (1/11 in 8 overs), coming for his second spell, which straightened after pitching and the resultant nick, ended an impressive 71-run stand.
Pujara, just after coming in, successfully asked for a DRS review after being adjudged leg before. A delectable chip shot coming down the track off Lyon helped Rohit bring up his half-century but his dismissal in the next over left fans yearning for more.
As far as Australia are concerned, they hardly put a foot wrong during the two sessions that they batted. Steve Smith (81 off 167 balls) missed out on a second hundred but rookie Cameron Green flayed a hapless Indian attack with a well-made 84 off 132 balls that had four sixes. They declared at the stroke of tea, having scored 312 for 6.
Marnus Labuschagne (73 off 118 balls) once again batted positively during his second century partnership of the match (103 runs) with mentor Smith, who employed a more cautious approach. The butter-fingered Indian fielders also didn’t help the bowlers’ cause as Hanuma Vihari, vice-captain Rohit and Rahane missed regulation catches at square leg, slip and gully respectively.
While Ravichandran Ashwin (2/95 in 25 overs) can take solace in the fact that he denied Smith a hundred with a successful review, he would be the first to admit that he was well below his best during the match.
Green, the 6 feet 7 inch gentle giant, was cautious but didn’t let the loose deliveries get away and the six off Siraj (1/90 in 25 overs) over widish mid-on gave a glimpse of his quality. As if to show that he can do it repeatedly, he muscled another one off the same bowler in the same region and then again into the Cow Corner for fun.
Worse was in store for Siraj as he faced another round of racial abuse which led to ejection of six Aussie spectators and a formal apology to the team from the home board. The final session was marginally better for India but it’s still a long way to go before Rahane will be able to heave a sigh of relief.