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Test narrative veers further from expectations

And then came Thakur and Washington (pause for spell check; no, not that Washington). The fact of their partnership was a freak, but there was nothing freakish about how they compiled it. Thakur played with nuggety resolve and punchy drives. The taller, slimmer, younger Washington displayed left-handed languidness. From the first ball, his drives were so smooth they oozed.

They stood up to the quicks gamely, and went about Nathan Lyon in a way that brought back memories of Stuart MacGill’s complaint about bowling to India: “It’s not that they don’t know what I’m bowling, it’s that they don’t care.”

In Lyon’s case, it might have been that it wasn’t that they were unaware of his 100-Test milestone, but that they had a match to save. A down-the-ground six each was struck with insouciance. It’s a characteristic of sophistication of the modern cricket world that players get exposed in so many formats and forums that Test cricket when it comes does not awe them.

Thakur and Washington had a little luck, but it was the fortune axiomatically granted to the brave. In antithesis of Adelaide, where every half chance became a wicket, here half chances were rounded down to zero. There was only one authentic catch to hand, and to judge from reactions on the field, Tim Paine might not have known until day’s end that Washington gloved what he dropped. To be fair, broadcasters only discovered it a couple of balls later.

Australia made noticeably little attempt to dynamite India out with bouncers. Only Mitch Starc mounted a short-ball assault, and only briefly. There was a possible explanation. India was exhausted in terms of manpower, but Australia was drained by the pile-up of playing days. India’s weakness became its strength: it was raw but fresh. Australia’s strength became its weakness: it had no reserves of energy.

In the field, Australia was markedly subdued. Whether this was contrition after Sydney or simply that they had no answers here, let alone smart-arse rejoinders, was a moot point. Finally, Thakur played around a Pat Cummins break-back and Washington off-glanced a catch to gully before some classic tail-end, bunny-hopping batting reduced what had looked likely to be a formidable Indian first innings deficit to the size of a rounding error.

Washington Sundar dejected after being dismissed.

Washington Sundar dejected after being dismissed. Credit:Jono Searle, Getty Images

All the while, the time/runs/wickets/weather calculus was tightening against Australia, and with it their pretensions to reclaim the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. There were only two givens, that India didn’t have to win and that the weather will come. By the time Australia’s openers came to negotiate a testing half-hour before stumps, they were in a position where again they had to hurry carefully. It may have cost Dave Warner an aggravation of his groin injury.

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The fascination of Test cricket in contrast to short-form is that over five days, the possibilities multiply out endlessly. That also has been the story of this series. Each new development has been the less likely of two in its moment and so the narrative of the series kept veering further from expectations, which is how we got to Thakur, Washington and now the second-last day of the series with the trophy still on the line.

It’s the mark of a great Test series that you wake each new day already agog. This has been one.

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