A slowing-down pitch and a good start to the fourth innings have given India hope of competing on the final day of the Sydney Test after they fell behind by 94 runs in the first innings and were set 407 to win in four sessions. India ended the first of those at 98 for 2 after Rohit Sharma and Shubhman Gill put together the biggest opening stand of the series on either side.
“The pitch has been quite slow, and it has been good to bat on,” R Ashwin said on the final evening. “In fact, the balls that we saw misbehave yesterday, the ones that went up and down, has also kind of come down because of the slow nature of the pitch. I also think the roller is playing a role. And because the game started off with the pitch not seeing a lot of sun, the wicket is getting better to bat as the sun is belting down on it. As a team behind in the game, like we are, we are hopeful we can put a good performance in the first session tomorrow.”
However, Ashwin was not bullish about India’s prospects. In public utterances, this team has spoken about not thinking of draws but starting such final days with only winning the Test on their minds. Adelaide 2014-15 and The Oval 2018 are examples of that, but Ashwin said that the team will look to bat according to the situation on Monday, depending on the kind of bowling they are faced with.
“In a Test match you don’t look at the overall score on the final morning and say we must go for a win,” Ashwin said. “It just doesn’t happen quite so much like it happens in white-ball cricket. There are passages of play in the red-ball game that are much more different and you are playing on a day-five pitch. And also sometimes when you play to the merit of the ball, you stay in, sometimes you put yourself in a situation in the last session where you can take an initiative, but you don’t go into the morning saying chalo hum teen sau bana denge [let’s go, score 300].
“This is not how you play the game. Last time when we spoke about it in Adelaide, we got off to a good start and the game paced itself that way and we did believe we can get it because the score was in our range. Tomorrow as well we believe we can do it. That belief is very important when you step on to the park.”
Cheteshwar Pujara might have been criticised for his slow batting in the first innings by greats such as Ricky Ponting and Allan Border, but to Ashwin there couldn’t be two better batsmen than Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane for the job at hand tomorrow.
“It is very very important that we play a good first session tomorrow,” Ashwin said. “A very, very ideal and good first session would be to not lose a wicket. These two gentlemen out in the middle have proven through their career how good they are playing this format of the game and playing many good knocks for us. Ajinkya has got a hundred at MCG and Puji has got a fifty in the first innings. We are all very hopeful that they will put in a good performance.”
This has been an unfortunate tour for India with injuries with Ravindra Jadeja and Rishabh Pant adding to the list during this Test. Ashwin confirmed Pant will bat in the second innings in Sydney but said they have not been talking about what all has gone against them.
“The bruise was quite severe and it was quite painful,” Ashwin said of Pant’s injury. “The elbow can be a very tricky place to deal with. Look as a cricket team, as a team inside the dressing room, we haven’t really spoken about how things are not going our way. Sometimes when they don’t go your way, they don’t. That’s how the sport is.
“But we refrain from talking about things that are not in control. We can only do what we can do and we can control only what we can, and I personally feel with whatever has been thrown at us, we have responded in a warrior-like fashion. And we would like to continue and take the fight on tomorrow also. If we can control what we can control, that is all we can ask for.”
Ashwin said the adversity had brought the team together. “When adversities grow, the team comes together,” he said. “Even after the Adelaide Test we came together, had a chat, had a team event, and I thought we came together pretty tight after the game. The result was what you saw in the MCG win.
“We were looking really really positive coming into this game as well. But you know such things, Jadeja’s ball rising from back of a length and injuring him… sometimes these things happen and they do set you back. I won’t say it is not a setback. It is what it is. Recently in the Sri Lanka against South Africa games, Sri Lanka lost four or five people in the first Test. We haven’t seen a lockdown [ever before], we haven’t put this body to so much of rest, and sometimes when it rains it pours… it is an opportunity to show what mettle we are made of and everybody is putting up a good fight.”
When it rains it pours, indeed. It poured mistakes from India in their first innings in Sydney, one of which was Ashwin’s run-out when the ball was hit wide of mid-off by Jadeja but Ashwin was caught ball-watching. Ashwin explained that happened because either Jadeja didn’t make a call early or if he did, Ashwin didn’t hear it.
“In all honesty I might not be the quickest of runners but I actually judge a run pretty well,” Ashwin said. “It is not like I have been run out often in Test cricket. The communication between me and Jaddu yesterday was very clear on the calling. Yesterday I heard his call very very late and he was almost halfway down the pitch when he said Ash bhag ja [Ash, run through]. It can happen.
“Maybe he did call earlier and I didn’t hear it in the noise. For me that is one of the reasons I was looking at where the ball was going. If you have not received a call, you are looking at help [as to] where the ball has gone. For me that was that. I have played cricket with proper basics to know that front of the wicket is the striker’s call so for me there was no reason to be looking behind had I got a call.”
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo