India v Australia, 3rd Test, Ranchi, 5th day March 20, 2017

Australia's un-Australian methods pay off

Australia aren't quite equipped to save Tests in Asia, but Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb pulled off an improbable result in Ranchi
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Matt Renshaw saw the shadow people. They hadn't been there for four days, but someone had opened a door and now there they were, right in his vision, running, walking, swaying from side to side. Once he saw them he couldn't concentrate. He had to pull away as the bowler ran in.

This enraged Ishant Sharma, who threw the ball down in anger and started a fight with Steven Smith before being moved away. Angry Ishant, too rarely seen, is by far the best Ishant.

He roars in next ball and follows right through to Renshaw to let him know how he's feeling. Soon he hits Renshaw on the hip. Another ball gets stuck in Renshaw's helmet after rattling around his face for a second. Then there is a bouncer that Renshaw barely avoids.

When Ishant goes straight and gets one to skid a bit, Renshaw is trapped plumb in front. He shrugs his shoulders and leaves the ground, practising the shot he should have played as the shadow people dance and rejoice.

A few minutes later, the shadow people dance again. Smith didn't make many bad decisions in his first innings of 127 overs, or even when he was in the field for 210 overs. But this one is bad, and Australia have spent all tour doing the right thing.

Australia have made a collection of decisions so far in this series. It started when S Sriram went from a development coach into the change room for this tour. He coached the batsmen on how to survive, and at times thrive, in India. But perhaps his greatest work was making Steve O'Keefe believe in himself. It was playing inside the line as Sriram had suggested and his constant mentoring of O'Keefe meant the weakest team to tour India, according to Harbhajan Singh, won a Test with a spinner who was fourth best , according to Shane Warne.

They were supposed to be embarrassed. Instead they had done the thing that teams had been trying to do all season in India.

In Bengaluru, Nathan Lyon got them off to a great start, and then it was the batmen's turn to step up. On a day when India were outstanding, Australia tried to just get far enough in front to win the game. As good as Shaun Marsh had been, it was his wicket at the close on day two that ultimately kept India in it. When Smith dropped Pujara, India battled to a lead big enough that Australia with a team of their very best players of spin would have struggled to get over the line. The chase and pitch was set up for an Australian collapse.

Australia have also been clever at little things. After O'Keefe's 12-wicket haul in Pune it would have been easy to think he would be a strike bowler in India, but Australia went straight back to using him as their stock bowler. It allowed Hazlewood more rest, it allowed Starc (Cummins) to be Starc (Cummins), and when Lyon's callous opened up, for O'Keefe to at least stop India getting away. They also got the ball to reverse while using their bowlers far better than Kohli used his. They played spin better over the first two Tests, they fielded and caught better, and they came up with intelligent plans and stuck to them well.

It's perhaps the most unAustralian they have been in India.

Shaun Marsh stood tall and blunted India © Associated Press

An hour into this match, on a pitch so doctored that the Ranchi rolled mud was supposed to swallow the Australians whole, they looked completely at home. But then their first real problem on this pitch had nothing to do with this pitch: Warner failed again and they were leaving their fate in the hands of Glenn Maxwell.

Maxwell was a bizarre choice, as Australia had barely used Mitchell Marsh's allrounded-ness, and perhaps the more sensible thing to do was bring in Usman Khawaja. Very rarely is Maxwell a sensible thing to do, and when Australia needed someone to play very long innings, him coming out to bat at 140 for 4 with Australia at least 300 behind where they would need to be, few would have been confident. But Maxwell played either the best innings of his life, or the one that sets up the rest of it. But as good as he was, and as just phenomenally good as Smith continued to be, 451 never quite felt enough.

When they had India at 328 for 6, with Pat Cummins defying pretty much everything to storm through the crease, it did seem like it might be enough. Australia had tried all the tricks they had. Bowling dry with interesting fields designed to stop batsmen scoring efficiently, short quick spells of reverse from Hazlewood, and short quick cutters from Cummins.

India crawled past them, but no matter how good Cheteshwar Pujara looked, or how well Wriddhiman Saha timed the ball, Smith refused to concede a single run. Pujara made a double-hundred that was essentially a three-day arm wrestle with Smith's fields. They let him stay in; they rarely let him score. They were tired, and never looked like getting a wicket, but they never rolled over, they never let India score. If India was going to score, it was going to be out of the footholes or with significant risk.

Forget the part-timers, forget taking chances. There were no easy runs for India, and that took time, which turned out to be very important.

Even with the restriction of India's lead, and how long it took them to get there, there were problems for Australia. They had only faced more than 100 overs in the fourth innings of an Asian Test once, against Bangladesh, in 2006. The last time Australia batted an extended period to draw a game was six years ago in Sri Lanka. They hadn't won a series since then either. They had only batted 100 overs in their second innings in Asia 16 times.

This is a team that doesn't win series in Asia, doesn't bat out draws. Going into a final day with two wickets down, against the two best spinners in the world for these conditions, and a pit of despair outside the left-handers' off stump, this team was not equipped to draw this match. Not that Australia were the team that should have won in Pune, or stayed in the game in Bengaluru for as long as they did.

What makes this series more remarkable is that this isn't a great time for Australian cricket. It's hard to praise the selectors too much, when part of their plan was replacing Peter Nevill with Matthew Wade as wicketkeeper. Wade has averaged less with the bat since coming back into the team than Nevill did when he was axed. And it was Wade's drop that ultimately cost them a chance of winning this Test.

Then there is Mitchell Marsh, who even if he wasn't injured - even if he had never been injured - was an odd choice for a team with an underperforming No. 7. He became odder when he barely bowled a charity over in two Tests.

Then there was the fact that about five minutes ago, Callum Ferguson was playing. Or that the selectors seemed to pick Renshaw on a whim, and then started to second guess themselves when they realised the India tour was coming up. And they also threw Nic Maddinson into Test matches while they publicly slated the man who has now replaced him.

But there was some method to their madness. Australian selections are still based on things like grit, youth, and aesthetic wonders that are apparently natural talent. However, when they turned their team around after the debacle in Hobart, they made three interesting calls with their batting. They went for a young kid who would become a star, the guy with the best recent first-class record, and the most naturally talented player they had.

That got them two players who have been important since, Renshaw and Handscomb, and to be fair, Maxwell was out of favour, and Chris Lynn was injured, so Maddinson was probably third choice anyway.

They continued to make big calls for this tour. At times it seemed like almost everyone did not rate Shaun Marsh outside of people who know his father, Western Australians, and Australian selectors. There is sometimes an overlap in those categories.

Marsh is not a great batsman. If he was, with all the advantages he has had, he would have played a lot more than 22 Tests by the age of 33. He certainly would have averaged a hell of a lot more than 40 in first-class cricket and he would have averaged over 40 in more than one country. It just so happened that one country was Sri Lanka, and he also has a huge average in the IPL. So it made sense to see him as an Asian specialist.

But it was still a risk. Marsh might know his game, he might be better in Asia than most Australian players, and he might also be one of Australia's best players of spin - averaging 62, double his average against pace. While that might seem enough, in India you need big scores as well, and Marsh doesn't do that. He can score, but he doesn't score big daddy runs. His highest in first-class cricket is 182, and that is part of the reason he doesn't average more.

Matthew Wade and Virat Kohli shook hands and called it a draw after Australia had batted out 100 overs © Associated Press

That hasn't been a big problem on this tour as Marsh has never gone past 70, and yet both of his fifties have been very good knocks. His 66 in Bengaluru ended up being remembered for its limp end, but in the context of the game it was a terrific knock. The incredible part was how he found a way to survive on that pitch. And that is what he needed to do today.

The thing is, unlike in Bengaluru, Marsh had some help in Ranchi. Peter Handscomb has made three hundreds in each of the last three Sheffield Shield seasons. He played IPL and county cricket, and for someone still pretty young, he is a well-rounded and experienced. But he's also weird. That's okay if you're chosen as a kid on a whim because you have something special about you. When you're 25, and you've never played for Australia, and your batting technique looks like a drunk guy trying to imitate Steve Smith, getting into the Australian team is not a sure thing.

Had there not been a crisis of faith after losing to South Africa, Handscomb might have had to wait a couple of years for a spot. Instead he was thrust in, and runs followed. Even in India, where he hasn't gone on with it, he has almost always looked better than most of the other batsmen. In Bengaluru, on a pitch where to survive you had to cobble together three or four ideas and hope for the best, he was the one player who looked like he could have chased down the total.

It was that cricket brain that shone again today. For 28 straight balls Marsh, who had fought hard against Jadeja in the rough, didn't have to face Jadeja in the rough. When India finally got Jadeja back at Marsh, it was halfway through the day, the ball was softer, Jadeja wasn't in rhythm, and the spit and fire were long gone.

For the rest of the day, the two played so incredibly smart. Marsh made sure to get outside the line, Handscomb took 13 runs off a poor over from Ashwin, so India would have to take him off and change their plans. They looked for runs, turned the strike over when it suited them, and played the kind of cricket Australians don't play in India that often.

While India might have looked flat and out of ideas, and could blame the soft ball and the fact the pitch didn't fall apart as they wanted, they also had to credit this partnership because both players were in control of over 90% of the balls they faced. That would be incredible on day one, but for the fifth day, with one guy still proving himself at 33 and another in his first Tests outside home, it was a tremendous effort. When the new ball did start to play up again, and Marsh struggled before getting out, it was Handscomb who remained.

Had those two got out, the Test could have ended poorly for Australia. Wade could have got a ball from the rough, and then the tail would have not only had to handle the spinners and the pitch, but also the crowd.

Instead, the crowd was quiet. Handscomb had silenced them and they were a shadow of how it had been the evening before.

It even turned out that it wasn't the shadow people distracting Renshaw. It was M Vijay on the field. The only shadows Australia saw at the end of the day were those of disappointed Indian fielders, as they knew a win was slipping away.

When Handscomb knocked a ball gently through the covers, the shadows went to collect it, but Handscomb stood still. He could have run, but if he did there was a chance that Wade would have to face Jadeja out of the rough, so he refused the runs. While it probably wouldn't have mattered much - the game was drawn shortly after - Hanscomb had made another sensible decision.

Australia have no Starc, a barely functioning David Warner, and with one Test to play the score is 1-1. They haven't been jumping at shadows like they usually do in India. They are determined to do the right thing. And more often than not, they have.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jose on March 22, 2017, 16:57 GMT

    Very un-Jarrod Kimberish, in a few parts. Of course only in contents. The language &style? Just tops! As usual. Don't want throw, rolled mud at anybody. Especially when the target had been your target of affection & admiration in the past.

    In contents, a wee bit cheer-leadish, which I never expected! Of course, any assessment is always a function of expectations. If so, I plead guilty, though really not!

  • Scott on March 22, 2017, 14:13 GMT

    Can't say i agree with a few comments in this article. 1. "this isn't a great time for Australian cricket" Why? The Aussies have won 5 lost 1 and drawn 1 of their last 7 games, against India in India, and Sth Africa and Pakistan in Australia. Since the line in the sand was drawn (and Rod Marsh moved on) we have unearthed two gems in Renshaw and Handscomb. Pretty decent selections i would say. 2. "Marsh is not a great batsman" huh? Are you Don Bradman Jarrod? I've never heard a comment more insulting to a test cricketer. He'sin the best 6 batsmen in the number 2 team in the world. Look at his batting when Australia has needed it most. If you ignore the one test match series in Australia 5-6 years ago where admittedly Marsh had a nightmare and averaged 3 batting at 3 he has consistently made runs barring injury and averages close to 50. 3. Implying Wade hasn't been a good selection. His average difference compared to Nevill is minimal and he offers a solidifying ruthless edge.

  • IFTIKHAR on March 22, 2017, 13:15 GMT

    It is always great to see a rearguard fom any team.When Australia lost their fourth wicket on the last day i switched off my t.v. assuming Jadeja and Ashwin to mop up the rest!Marsh and Handscombe showed the resilence that is needed.Marsh in particular.He might not be a great batsman but i have a hunch he might win the next Test for Australia.Marsh.Renshaw.Handscombe might be the tonic for Australia in Dharahamsala.

  • Pr on March 22, 2017, 5:33 GMT

    Very good writing. Australia are staying in this series with pure grit and some great new talent. Renshaw is only 20? Handscomb looks as geeky as Steve Smith. If Cummins and Hazlewood can dig deep for one last game they could well win the series. Even if they don't, I think this side has done enough to cover themselves with glory.

  • Mark on March 22, 2017, 5:31 GMT

    Australia are statistically world test champions on fast bouncy pitches. They have carried the burden of being expected to be the entertainers of cricket. Australia have finally shrugged that label to learn batting patience is the king on cracking dust bowls. And to do it on Indian pitches against the best two spin bowlers speaks volumes of these Australian batsmen.This strong mindset has all the indications of a long lasting dominant No1 test team.

  • Richard on March 22, 2017, 2:58 GMT

    @ jono_m - OMG he bowled 18 overs per innings in that state game! What are you talking about! The great Dennis Lillee played 70 test matches for Australia. In ALL those matches he bowled more than 39 overs in an innings just 5 times. Cummins has just done it in his first match in 5 years, in the heat of India, on an unresponsive pitch! It's ridiculous. It was the poor selection of an injured Lyon and the reluctance to bowl Maxwell which led to him being mismanaged and that is a FACT! Why would you argue with that?

  • Lakmal on March 22, 2017, 0:04 GMT

    If India declared soon after Pujara got his 200, things may have been different?

  • Jonathan on March 21, 2017, 14:55 GMT

    @Reddirt, well he did bowl 36 overs in the Shield match a couple of weeks back so I'm not sure 39 is stretching it too much. From Steve Smith's point of view it has to be a case of if he's in the side then he needs to be able to bowl the overs I need from him, either that or just not make yourself available in the fashion of Patto. I too would have liked to see Smith bowl himself but he is just not interested in letting up the pressure at all and if that's how he sees it then that's how it is, results are improving but he may go through a few quicks doing it.

  • Richard on March 21, 2017, 14:20 GMT

    I cannot believe they made Cummins bowl 39 overs in his come-back match. Incompetence personified. How Maxy only bowls 4 overs in over 200, Smith doesn;t bowl himself is BEYOND BELIEF.

  • Prasanna on March 21, 2017, 11:13 GMT

    @ MEMORIESOFTHEPAST, while I agree that Aus lost a golden chance to win in Bangalore, that certainly is not the case in Ranchi. None of the bowlers save for Jadeja and Cummins took wickets and it would have been really difficult to force a result given how the wicket played. Not the case with Bangalore. Aus lost it on day 3 when the lead was restricted to just 87. Starc bowled poorly to give away too many runs , Smith , Wade and even Warner dropped vital chances off Pujara and Rahane and eventually poor batting cost us the game. I would say Aus did well to save the game in Ranchi, something we haven't been doing off-late - batting out for a draw.

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