India batsmen, for once, were looking to take the fight to Australia before two incidents of brain fade adversely impacted their attempt to save the World Test Championship final against Australia at The Oval in London on Saturday.
They went to stumps on the fourth day at 164/3, still needing 280, but they could have very well been two wickets less and in strong chance to draw if not win the Test had skipper Rohit Sharma and one-drop Cheteshwar Pujara been themselves and not played shots uncharacteristic to their style of batting.
Set a target of 444 by Australia, who grinded their way to 270/8 in second innings against persisting Indian bowling that made runs difficult to come by, India started on a positive note, scoring at almost six an over.
On a fourth evening pitch that, in the words of Nasser Hussain ‘had no uneven bounce of the first three days’, it was still impressive batting when Sharma, Shubman Gill, who was dismissed by a stunning catch from Cameron Green in gully, and Pujara played their shots. The ball came on to the bat with ease.
Gill and Sharma added 41 in seven overs. Once the former was dismissed, Sharma and Pujara continued the run-flow, notching a half-century partnership.
But just as they were nibbling into the lead at close to six runs an over, the impetuousness seemed to get the better of them just after the tea interval.
Sharma, despite a man at 45 degrees square on the leg-side, tried to sweep against Nathan Lyon. On much more turning pitches in India, this year against the same side and against England two years ago, he has used his feet well. But here, he opted for the sweep and missed the line to be out leg-before for 43.
In the next over, it was the turn of Pujara to go against his grain as he attempted a ramp shot off Pat Cummins only to edge it to wicketkeeper Alex Carey. He made 27 off 47 deliveries.
From 92/1, India were reduced to 92/3 and under severe pressure.
Former India coach Ravi Shastri minced no words in criticising. “Those two shots were poor,” he said.
Former India skipper and opening batsman Sunil Gavaskar criticised Pujara.
“India have just lost a wicket [of Rohit]. Pujara should have been circumspect,” he said.
To be fair to Pujara, he has earned boundaries by guiding the ball over slips before, most notably in the famous win at the Gabba in Brisbane over two years ago. But then that pitch was different. The ball may have been elevating probably due to the bouncier surface there. Here, it may not have been.
Perhaps, Australia’s painful trudge in the second innings had been a lesson for India. They knew that instead of getting throttled, they should be going all out with their shots and instead of dying by being strangled, it was better to go down fighting. That alone explains those two shots.
Former skipper Virat Kohli parried to ward off pressure. He remained not out on 44 off 60 balls, carving some beautiful drives, mostly in the region between mid-on and mid-wicket, where his wrists also came into play on occasions.
Rahan batted grittily to give him company with unbeaten 20.
Australia waited for the day to end instead of trying to curb the run-flow.
If India are to save this Test or maybe win it, both Kohli and Rahane will have to bat on at least for the first session on the fifth and final day. And hope that Australia continue being profligate.