Ashwin's late entry poses questions
Ranchi. What a match, eh? Having gone neck-and-neck till the very end of a four-day dogfight on an up-and-down Bengaluru pitch, India and Australia showed they could sustain the same kind of intensity over a longer period and on an entirely different surface.
For the neutral fan, Bengaluru and Ranchi were both perfect Test matches. Just different kinds of perfect. Given how closely matched the teams turned out to be, and given the conditions, the draw was probably the ideal result.
India, however, may just feel like they let an opportunity slip, given the position they were in at stumps on day four, and then at lunch on day five.
There were mitigating factors. Apart from the rough outside the left-handers' off stump, there was little else about the pitch to suggest it was a fifth day in India. Darren Lehmann had suggested after the fourth day's play that batting had only been difficult when the ball was new and hard, and Virat Kohli echoed him after day five.
"Obviously, the way the wicket is expected to break on days three, four and five, it happened, but I think the hardness of the ball was a very big factor," Kohli said. "Yesterday evening, when the ball was hard, it was turning a lot, fast. Even this morning it was doing so, but in the second session, it was not so hard, so to generate pace off the wicket becomes difficult for a bowler.
"When you get to the fifth day, as it is the pace becomes lesser. After that, we tried with the second new ball, got a couple of wickets, but in the middle session, the hardness of the ball was a factor."
This certainly seemed to be the case. Australia lost four second-innings wickets before the first new ball was 30 overs old, two before the second new ball turned 15, and nothing in between.
Peter Handscomb and Shaun Marsh, moreover, batted as calmly and astutely as any pair has in a match-saving situation in India in recent years. Sometimes, a partnership is just too good.
Having said all that, though, there were times during the course of the fifth day when India's tactics may have made life easier than it could have been for Australia's batsmen.
Kohli started the day with Ravindra Jadeja bowling from the press-box end and Umesh Yadav from the pavilion end. Jadeja was expected to be India's most potent weapon and to get the most out of the surface by bowling into the rough. Umesh had been sharp and probing in the first innings, taking three wickets to Jadeja's five. Perhaps Kohli wanted to use Umesh in a short, sharp burst right up.
Umesh, instead, bowled a six-over spell and spent most of it bowling a long way outside off stump to Steven Smith. Then, Ishant Sharma replaced him and bowled a seven-over spell. He dismissed Matt Renshaw, and Jadeja took out Smith in between, but before that, he spent a fair amount of time bowling wide outside Smith's off stump as well.
In all, Smith faced 43 balls from the two quicks, and didn't play a shot off 23 of them. Bowling as wide as Ishant and Umesh did made obvious sense as a defensive tactic for a team that is playing catch-up in a Test match. India, however, were looking to force a win.
Kohli did not divulge the thinking behind this tactic in his post-match press conference. "I don't want to expose the thinking behind it," he said. "We obviously have our plans; we've got one more match to go, I'll tell you after the last Test, probably, the plan behind it."
Fair enough. We'll have to try and work it out ourselves.
India's lead at the start of the day's play was 129. It was sizeable, but Australia still had the chance of wiping it out quickly if one of their batsmen got in and started scoring quickly. Smith had made an unbeaten 178 in the first innings. By getting his quicks to bowl a defensive line to him, Kohli was perhaps trying to ensure India kept Australia's scoring in check, thereby enabling Jadeja to bowl with an all-out attacking field for longer.
If that was the idea, it worked. Even though Australia did not lose a wicket in the first hour of the day, they only scored 25 runs in that time, in 16.4 overs.
Kohli could point to the wickets of Renshaw and Smith - within four balls of each other - as further proof that his plans had worked. Neither dismissal, however, was a direct result of his plans.
Ishant, bowling from around the wicket to Renshaw and attacking his stumps, had him lbw with a ball that moved in a touch and kept a little low. Smith, a few overs earlier, had toe-ended a ball from Umesh that had also kept low - except it was a fair way outside off stump, just like most of the balls he faced from the fast bowlers. Smith may have been tested a little more, perhaps, had they actually bowled at his stumps the way Ishant did to Renshaw - Smith was, after all, lbw to a shooter in the second innings in Bengaluru.
Eventually, Smith was bowled by Jadeja, failing to pad away a delivery that pitched outside his leg stump. It wasn't all that special a delivery, turning square out of the rough. It was among the fullest balls Jadeja had bowled, and Smith could well have kicked it away had he put in a longer front-foot stride.
There was one direct consequence of Kohli using Umesh and Ishant for so long during the first session. R Ashwin only bowled one over before lunch. One over. It led one mediaperson, at the end of the match, to ask Kohli if Ashwin was carrying some sort of injury.
"No, there's nothing wrong with Ashwin, there are no problems as such," Kohli said. "You obviously want to choose ends - fast bowlers from the far end were more effective and the spinners were more effective from the commentary end.
"Obviously, we have to understand where the game is placed, and what bowlers you want to use. Whenever Jadeja came on to bowl, he picked up a wicket every two-three overs. It was very difficult to change him at that stage because he was bowling in good momentum. So, I think, that was one of the factors.
"In the second innings, [Ashwin] bowled quite a few overs, we bowled him from both ends. It was difficult for the bowlers to generate much from the pitch. Jadeja, you can leave him aside in this game, because he really stood apart among all the bowlers. But I think in general the bowlers found it quite difficult to make things happen from the centre of the wicket. The key was to keep trying and that's what Ashwin does always and put his best efforts in both the innings."
Ashwin ended up bowling 30 overs in Australia's second innings, the most behind Jadeja, who bowled 44. But he only bowled four overs with the first new ball - all on day four - which was 34 overs old by the time he came back into the attack.
Given what he said about the ball doing very little after going soft - during the presentation ceremony, he even suggested that the SG balls that were used for this game had been going soft too soon - it was a little puzzling that he hardly used Ashwin when it was still hard and potentially helpful.
"See, as I said, we wanted to choose ends as far as spinners are concerned," Kohli said, when asked about this. "We wanted to give Jadeja a longer go because he was hitting the rough consistently and the ball has to spin back into the batsmen. If you see right-handers or left-handers, from the rough it was always attacking the batsmen. That's one factor we used.
"And as I said, it depended on who's bowling from which end, not which bowler has to bowl from where. Sometimes one bowler bowls more in a Test match. A lot of times, Ash has bowled plenty of overs in a game and the others haven't. You know, roles are always reversed, it's not such a big factor for us."
This wasn't the first time in this series that Kohli had under-utilised one of his bowlers or turned to him belatedly. In the first innings in Pune, Umesh only came on when Australia were already 81 for no loss in 27 overs. He ended up with figures of 4 for 32. In the first innings in Bengaluru, Jadeja bowled the fewest overs among India's specialist bowlers, and ended up with a six-wicket haul.
There was no such belated success for Ashwin here, and he looked below his best through most of his spells, perhaps striving too hard for a wicket, and in that effort, not quite going through his action as smoothly as he otherwise would.
But Ashwin frequently gets through one or two less-than-spectacular spells before settling on the ideal pace for a particular pitch and discovering his rhythm. As tea approached in Ranchi, there were a couple of signs of this happening: a slow, loopy offbreak drew Marsh forward and beat his outside edge with turn and bounce. Then, Handscomb stepped out to Ashwin, tried to work him with the spin, and didn't get to the pitch of the ball; a big lbw shout followed.
Then, in his first over after tea, Ashwin drew Marsh forward again, this time out of his crease. The ball dipped and spun sharply to beat his outside edge, but spun so much that the wicketkeeper's hands had to move a long way to his left and the same distance back to try and stump the batsman. Marsh dragged his foot back well in time.
Ashwin's next ball landed in the rough outside Marsh's off stump - Jadeja's area. Kohli said he used Jadeja far more than Ashwin because he wanted the ball spinning towards the stumps from the rough rather than away from them. Well, this was Ashwin's carrom ball, and it turned towards the stumps and bounced enough for Saha to collect in front of his face after Marsh left the ball.
This was among the most testing overs any batsman had faced on day five, and it came with nearly a full session left and with Australia still to erase their deficit. It could have led to something. We will never know. As soon as that over ended, Kohli took Ashwin out of the attack.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo