It could very well have been two entirely different Tests, on two entirely different pitches.
Australia and India played out an action-packed penultimate day of the Perth Test, with the hosts going back with the advantage, reducing India, chasing a daunting 287 to win, to 112 for 5 at Stumps. Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood took two wickets each to leave India tottering.
The contrasts in the game were highlighted by a Perth pitch that behaved like it had a personality disorder. One was the benign, calm one that made the bowlers toil, and the other a capricious, temper-tantrum throwing track that made the batsmen fear for their safety.
The calm one was on show in the morning session. Usman Khawaja and Tim Paine played out a wicketless session, scoring at a snail’s pace to further the hosts’ advantage. They bored down the Indian bowlers, offering a dead bat to almost everything that was thrown their way.
India’s bowlers kept things tight by bowling to strict lines and lengths. Jasprit Bumrah was the most dangerous, while Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami too troubled the batsmen on quite a few occasions.
But just as the break loomed, the pitch started showing that it was only becoming tougher to bat on, with a few balls jumping off a length, while as many kept surprisingly low. The closest India came was when Bumrah was presented with a run out chance off his own bowling, but his throw went wide and Khawaja survived. Australia scored only 15 runs in the first 12 overs. Khawaja went on to bring up his 14th Test fifty, off 155 balls, with a flick off Ishant.
If the first session was all patience and attrition, the second burst to life like a slumbering monster which suddenly remembered it had to wreak havoc. Eight wickets fell in the frenetic session, with the pitch suddenly turning into a near-unplayable one.
Shami breathed fire immediately after the break. He had Tim Paine caught at second slip with a snorter that lifted viciously from short of a length. The Australian captain was caught awkwardly fending at the ball, and gloved it to Virat Kohli at second slip. Aaron Finch came back out to resume his innings, having retired hurt the previous day. He lasted just one ball. Shami’s delivery rose up again, and Finch gloved one through to Pant on the leg side.
India took the new ball soon after, and Shami continued to ping in deliveries that did all sorts regularly. Khawaja, who had batted with great patience for his 72 in over 200 balls, got another rip snorter. He tried to pull his gloves out of the way, but couldn’t, giving Shami his fifth wicket – his fourth fifth-wicket haul in Tests.
Bumrah brought out the contrast in the pitch. A length delivery to Pat Cummins refused to go more than a few inches from the ground, and snuck below the batsman’s bat to castle him. Lyon fell to a top edge soon after as Australia slid from 192 for 4 to 207 for 9. India’s target then was 250 – a daunting one, but still one that the visitors would have fancied given they were looking at a target closer to 300 at one stage.
Incidentally, that’s how it turned out. Hazlewood and Starc took their chances and swung their bat around, and suddenly runs came in a hurry. Their 36-run stand left India deflated, and eventually Bumrah ended the innings by bowling out Starc for 14.
India were left to chase 287, and on a pitch that looked more dangerous with every passing delivery, it looked massive. 23 balls later, it looked near insurmountable.
KL Rahul inside edged Mitchell Starc in the very first over to depart for a duck, while Cheteshwar Pujara got a steepler that he edged behind to Paine. India were two down for 13.
Kohli and Vijay settled the nerves down with a 35-run stand as the demons in the pitch went to sleep again. But that allowed the genius of Lyon to shine through. He outfoxed Kohli with one that did not spin as much as the batsman expected, while Vijay was out bowled driving a tossed up off spinner.
Hanuma Vihari and Ajinkya Rahane again steadied the ship. Their stand of 43 helped India close in on the three-figure mark, but again just as India looked to settle down, Rahane went for a booming cover drive and ended up giving point a catch.
Vihari helped India finish the day off without further setbacks but India’s lower order will have to bat out of their skins if they are to pull off a miracle and score the remaining 175 runs tomorrow. For Australia, they can bank on the two-faced nature of the pitch to wrap up the rest of India’s fragile batting order.
Brief scores: Australia 326 & 243 (Usman Khawaja 72, Mohammed Shami 6/56) lead India 283 & 112/5 (Ajinkya Rahane 30, Josh Hazlewood 2-24, Nathan Lyon 2-30) by 175 runs.