India v Australia, 3rd Test, Ranchi March 15, 2017

The long break and the premiership quarter

Australia's tour of India has been a bit like an AFL game and they go into the third Test knowing a victory could help them retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy

Steven Smith is confident of beating India at their own game after assessing the Ranchi pitch might not offer too much bounce © AFP

Steven Smith stood amid the swirling controversy, the dark insinuations, the almost-accusations.

Only halfway through the tour and the series was level - one emphatic win by Australia and one loss in a swerving, see-sawing contest. They would have bitten a hand, an arm, a shoulder off if that ledger had been offered to them before leaving home.

Only halfway through the tour and there had been more 'gates' than you would expect breaking out of a high-security prison; Pitchgate, DRSgate, Gategate. Gate, gate, gate.

The players needed a gate break. Some stayed in the confines of their luxury Bengaluru hotel while others escaped the tour bubble for less intense surroundings.

Smith stood amidst the swirling controversy, the dark insinuations, the almost-accusations. And then he visited a bat factory.

Perhaps it said much about Smith's immersive obsession with every aspect of cricket that he would spend precious and rare time off this way. But it was also pragmatic. Smith took one of his favourite bats to the BDM factory, where his sponsored bats and kit were made, to see if it could be replicated and also to have a greater understanding of how the tools of his trade were created.

It was the gloves that made the biggest impression. Two-hundred and fifty white, black and fluorescent yellow pieces were carefully laid out on a white tablecloth, waiting to be assembled like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Painstakingly stitched by hand, each pair took a full day's work to complete. Smith joked that from now on he would feel guilty when asking for new ones while batting.

Just as meticulously as the glove-maker, Smith and his men have been laying out their own pieces of a puzzle; every detail planned, each individual piece laid out from Australia to Dubai to India, ready to be assembled into a whole that might achieve what many thought to be the impossible: winning a Test series here.

To mangle a cliché, this has been a tour of two halves. A dramatic and frenetic opening two stanzas, an intermission as the eye of the hurricane brought respite, and now the final two acts to decide the fate of heroes and villains - depending on which side you support.

Australian Rules football, or AFL, has a similar symmetry to this series: two quarters, separated by a brief recess, followed by a 20-minute half time - otherwise known as the long break - before the final two quarters.

"It's good to have a little break," Smith said. "We've been talking here about playing on AFL sort of terms and we're at halftime now throughout this series. Going into the premiership quarter I guess in the next game, [as] they say."

Steven Smith believes Australia have played India's spinners better than India have played the Australian spinners © Associated Press

Smith's reference to the Ranchi Test being the premiership quarter has its significance; it is in the third quarter that many AFL games are won, when one side often asserts its dominance, pulls away from the opposition and puts the result beyond doubt. As in Bengaluru, Australia need just one more victory to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. It may just depend on how they regroup after the long break.

Smith played down the notion of this being his most important Test of his still young captaincy: "I'm not thinking about it that way," he said. "For me it's about not thinking about the results too much and just making sure our processes are still in the right space.

"We've played some pretty good cricket so far in this series, for us it's about making sure we go out there and do the same things we've talked about."

It is also about all of those little pieces that make up the 3D jigsaw. Some have been forcibly removed and losing Mitchell Starc is akin to losing the entire thumb of the glove. Pat Cummins, despite his injury-induced dearth of first class cricket, has done much to impress his captain. His cutters at training "were actually ragging" and he looks the likeliest candidate as replacement thumb, despite the forebodings of a low and slow pitch.

The Australians' reading of the pitch, which may as well have been written in Sanskrit for all the clarity it provided Smith, will decide the remaining pieces. He expects there won't be a great deal of bounce and that the ball will "shoot quite low" and spin as the game progresses. But beyond that, he admits, he's not sure how it will play.

The victory in Pune, however, has given Australia belief that all their preparation, all the elements laid out for months, or flown in at the eleventh hour, can be stitched together to bring success; that they can beat India at their own game, by using their own strengths.

"It's possible," Smith said. "I think so far throughout this series, our batters have played their spinners better than their batters have played our spinners. So if it's a game of spin versus batters, and the quicks aren't in there quite as much - I certainly think it brings us to an even playing field."

The eye of the hurricane has passed. The third act, the premiership quarter, has arrived.

Melinda Farrell is a presenter with ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Damien on March 16, 2017, 3:16 GMT

    Great write-up Melinda. Even being based in California, this match can't start soon enough. The tension, the controversy, the anticipation.... All leading to the start in just under an hour. Can't wait! I just wish that the toss wasn't so influential on the outcome. Why can't cricket be more like baseball, but with a unique twist. I still think that the visiting team should get to decide whether they bat or bowl first. In most cases, the visiting team will choose to bat, so both teams can get best use of their resources. The home team still gets such an advantage of the crowd and familiarity with conditions this suggested change is merely likely to improve the contest as a spectacle, and extend the length of test matches. Why wouldn't such a suggestion be implemented? Does anyone have a good argument against such a move?

  • Glenn on March 16, 2017, 1:59 GMT

    Looking at what Smith has said at the end there gives me hope. They really have to stop frothing about the state of whichever pitch is presented, just inspect it and select your team accordingly. Both sides have to bat and bowl on it, so as he has said it's really up to the players now, and no excuses. Personally, after the unfolding drama and theatre of the second test, I can't wait for the start of play today, no matter who wins.

  • Prem on March 16, 2017, 0:02 GMT

    Australia's only chance is if they win the toss and bat first and bat well. They are hopeless in chasing even 60 in the fourth innings.

  • Jonathan on March 15, 2017, 22:38 GMT

    Something Warren Ryan, the Rugby League coach used to say was "you win the game in the first half and score your points in the second half". I like this rule, but not when it looks like we are on the wrong end of it! Our lads landed some very heavy blows first up but a couple of poor sessions at the end of the first half has India level pegging, having withstood everything we were able to throw at them and gone into the sheds level it seems to me like they may just come out and get over us pretty quickly if we don't show up from the first ball at Ranchi. The first session or two here may just decide the series.

  • CricMystique on March 15, 2017, 21:45 GMT

    As an indian fan, i would be severly disappointed and disgusted if the bounce is not even, as long as it is even - fair game - bring on the skill to combat the spin. that said i wish/hope/dream/fantasise for green bouncy tops on our patch, not only will we start breeeding good quicks, our young bats will get good practice for playing overseas outside the SC, we shall also develop a good line of close in fielders and slipsmen. If we donot develop green bouncy wickets in our FC, get used to home victories and the odd test win here and there outside the SC, get used to the fact that the talent waste of people like Umesh yadav is due to our spin and 'win @home matters, who cares if we loose overseas' mentality, there will be several like him going down the drain unless we develop a pace based mentality and psyche...cricinfo plz publish

  • Murray on March 15, 2017, 21:42 GMT

    Hope there's some more great cricket this series ! So far it's been really intense, which is what I am sure we are all after.....

  • Murray on March 15, 2017, 21:38 GMT

    Great article Melinda !. To anyone who does not know. AFL is the biggest professional league of Australian Rules Football. ..... Australian Rules football was developed by the Melbourne Cricket Club to keep it's players fit in the off season. It's an interesting analogy to think of cricket in terms of footy :D.

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