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WTC Final: Big score, top-order debacle leaves India with a mountain to climb against Australia

WTC Final: Big score, top-order debacle leaves India with a mountain to climb against Australia

The bowlers fail to withstand the pressure before the batsmen fail to rise as Rohit & Co have 318 runs with five wickets in hand.

WTC FinalIndia’s Srikar Bharat, left, and India’s Ajinkya Rahane leave the field after the second day of the ICC World Test Cup final between India and Australia at the Oval cricket ground in London, Thursday, June 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

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The fate of the World Test Championship is firmly in Australia’s hands. After pushing their first innings total to 469 on a surface that could have progressively deteriorated, India were clutching at straws, half their side returning to the pavilion with the score on 151. The picture on a sun-drenched day at the Oval could have been bleaker for India but for resistance from Ajinkya Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja in their 71-run fifth over.

India were less listless than on day one and Australia were perhaps not as clinical as they were on the opening day. There were passes in the game when India fought back, there were phases in the game when Australia’s focus snapped, but India fell so far behind Australia on the first day that they would end up playing catch-up until the stumps were drawn.

Their best phase of the game came when Rahane and Jadeja absorbed the pressure and released the pressure with sharp moves. Jadeja was the aggressor. He drove and hit Mitchell Starc for three fours, whipped Scott Boland for a six; when Starc returned for another spell, he rammed him for three more shots to the fence. It was Jadeja’s old cavalier, before Nathan Lyon finished his 51-ball 48 with a perfect deception off the off-spinner, forcing him to bowl a wide off-break with firm hands.

Rahane’s returner was less fluent, though he somehow found boundaries in the first half of his knock. A top four from Boland to get off the mark, a pulled four from Cummins, a drive through cover point, there were flashes of the old Rahane. He was also lucky – he was leg before dismissing the metronomic Pat Cummins in a delivery that wasn’t extinguished on replay – he saw his outside edge beaten a couple of times, and he was hit on the helmet. But he survived the day, and on him rests India’s enduring hopes of staying in the game.

Early setbacks

Before returning there was a breakdown. India were 71 for 4 in 18 overs when Starc produced a ripper to knock Virat Kohli. It was an unusual stay, Kohli oscillating between the beautiful and the banal. One moment he looked unmistakable, and the next unmistakable. But he was hitting pitches of comfort – advertised by a sharply driven four from Old Man to mid-on – before the left-armer’s dashing dragon engulfed him in his flames.

By this time, Kohli’s front foot was moving fluidly forward, a sign that he was in sync. So he pressed his front foot long and straight to counter the long ball. But the ball took a frightful leap, like a mocking snake, and leapt towards the sky. Kohli was so committed to the front foot that he couldn’t adjust. Most batsmen wouldn’t have. He rose on the rebound but couldn’t muster much to keep the ball. It rose from the blade’s shoulder to the slip cordon, where Steve Smith pounced to complete an overhead catch.

Kohli stared in disbelief at the surface, where one suspects there could be more episodes of fluctuating bounce as the game progresses.

He could barely avoid the ball, strange on the field. But the same sympathy could not be extended to the first three. All three dismissals could have been avoided. Two of them — Cheteshwar Pujara and Shubman Gill — perished leaving balls they should not have had. These were not teasing beauties. but balls of the right length, which can be defended on both feet. Lethargy ripped through Rohit Sharma as he bowled around a ball that was shaping up by a fraction and missed it completely.

By that point, Sharma had looked in sumptuous touch, pulling Starc’s second ball for a four and then flicking it behind for his second four. The openers stormed to 30 in six overs, Cummins forced to replace Starc who replaced Boland off the pace.

Then Sharma and India made their first mistake. Trembling sowed the doubts of the dilemma in his mind. He wasn’t sure which way the ball would move after the throw. His feet froze. The ball returned to the fraction after the throw. The inside angle from the width of the fold was undoubtedly exaggerating the movement. So Sharma thought he would get away with hitting the ball down the leg. But the movement was subtle, and he was too late as the ball hit his pads. At the same moment, Gill left and the familiar denouement seemed around the corner.

In seven overs, Kohli and Pujara reduced the pressure, and when the opportunity arose, they countered. But Australia’s bowlers were relentless and kept probing on and off, drying up the runs and piling on the pressure.

Known defects

There were lessons to be learned for the Indian bowlers, who were sharper on the second day than on the first but were not persistent enough. They would produce a few dream balls and then let the intensity fade. After reducing Australia to 402 for seven, they let the last three wickets go to add 67 quick runs.

Either side of the four-wicket spell, they conceded cheap fours. In the first over of the day, Mohammed Siraj bowled two off-stump half-volleys to Smith to facilitate his 31st hundred. A semi-comeback followed. But that was it – odd sparks of combat laced with the same indiscipline and ineptitude as Day One, inadequate to even put a grip on the game. The door to this game seems to be firmly shut on them.

First published on: 09-06-2023 at 00:26 IST

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