The Border-Gavaskar Trophy slipped out of Australia’s grasp in the space of one manic session yesterday in the fourth Test in Dharamsala.
When Australia dismissed India for 332, limiting them to a lead of 32, the match was dead even. The tourists had the chance to set a target of 200-plus, which would have been a difficult chase on this lively pitch.
So, halfway through the final Test of this absorbing series, Australia were in a decent position to launch towards the most unlikely of series victories. Instead, they had two of their worst sessions of the tour, collapsing to 137 all out before wasting the new ball just before the close of play with some loose bowling.
In those two sessions, Australia badly missed the discipline and determination which had helped them get within striking distance of winning a series in India for the first time in 13 years.
The Australia we saw after lunch yesterday had more in common with the one which floundered in Sri Lanka last year than the outfit which obliterated India at Pune and scrapped for a rousing draw at Ranchi.
Earlier, in the first session, star Indian all-rounder Ravi Jadeja frustrated the Australians, unfurling big shot after big shot and riding his luck to a crucial knock of 63 from 95 balls.
That was Jadeja’s second half-century on the trot, following on from his 54no at Ranchi. His 96-run stand with keeper Wriddhiman Saha (31) hauled India back into the Test after they had looked at risk of a significant first-innings deficit.
In the end it was pace prodigy Pat Cummins who accounted for both men. First he sucked Jadeja into playing a loose drive at a wide, full delivery. Then he directed a ferocious bouncer at the throat of Saha, who could only fend it in the air to slip.
Cummins bowled beautifully throughout that innings and deserved much better figures than 3-94, having had two catches turfed off his bowling.
Unfortunately for Australia, Cummins was not able to find the right length in the six-over new ball burst before stumps. The Indian quicks had earlier showed that it was back-of-a-length deliveries which were most likely to rear sharply or move off the seam.
Cummins and Hazlewood too rarely found that length, regularly floating up full deliveries which were easy to drive or leave. The reality, though, was that Australia’s bowlers were being asked to produce something miraculous in the last innings of the series because of the ineptitude of their batting colleagues.
The rot started with opener David Warner, who has had an absolutely wretched series. Warner has only made one half century in this series and that was a very scratchy knock in the first dig of this Test when he was dropped first ball.
Australia desperately needed the veteran to make a significant contribution in the second innings but, even after being dropped once more early in his innings, he was soon out for six feeding the slips cordon.
That brought to the wicket skipper Steve Smith, who majestically clipped his first ball through square leg for four and cruised to 17 off 14 balls. Aiming for another boundary through the leg side Smith inside edged an attempted pull shot on to his stumps.
Without Smith to carry the batting, Australia needed one of the less experienced players to step up. Rookie opener Matt Renshaw couldn’t, edging behind off the bowling of India’s super-impressive paceman Umesh Yadav.
Then Peter Handscomb and Shaun Marsh fell to spin in quick succession, leaving Australia in a crevasse at 5-92 at tea. Their hopes of setting a defendable total rested with Glenn Maxwell.
The cavalier all-rounder looked in supreme touch, unfurling a range of gorgeous strokes as he cruised to 45 from 60 balls.
His innings ended in typically unusual fashion when he was deemed not to be playing a shot to a Ravi Ashwin off spinner that pitch just outside his off stump and would have clipped leg.
Keeper Matt Wade and Cummins offered stout resistance, defying the Indians for 15 overs.
The problem was that neither of them played a shot in anger as they scored at just one run per over during that partnership. On a wicket offering significant help to the bowlers, against an accurate attack, such excessive caution was not wise – it was a mere matter of time before they were dismissed by a cracking delivery.
Wade did not show any aggression whatsoever until he had lost Cummins, O’Keefe and Lyon. Then he cracked 15 runs off 11 balls, before he was left stranded by Hazlewood, underlining just why the keeper should have played his shots far earlier.
Of course, the blame in this Test does not lie with Wade, who has batted well at Dharamsala.
The likes of Warner and Shaun Marsh, in particular, have let their side down at key moments.
As a result, the Australian bowlers have today been handed the cricketing version of ‘Mission Impossible’ – securing 10 Indian wickets for 87 runs or less.