So after another day of the unexpected, in a series of the unexpected, we go to an unexpected decider. The way the series has escalated, every session feels more important than the the last, and every day, and every match, and so the stage for fourth Test is set. In Dharamsala, nestling in the Himalayas, it will feel like a summit.
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Australia had the better of this draw in the sense that they will feel like they won something, India that they lost something. Now India must win, Australia merely draw again. That won’t be their mindset, of course. But already in this series, they have demonstrated to themselves the joy of virtues they once scorned, patience and restraint. Last time in India, the further behind they fell, the more they rapped out their motto about the need to play their natural attacking game. They lost 4-0.

This time, it has been different. This day, they had to do as Donald Trump plans – invest all they had into defence. This day, by playing out of a somewhat mythologised Australian character, they showed even greater character. This day, instead of trying to swallow the elephant whole, they did it bite by bite. Fortunately, it was an Indian elephant, slightly smaller than the African.

Peter Handscomb will make many lesser Test hundreds than his four-and-a-half hour, 200-ball 72 not out on a fifth-day pitch in India. Ditto Shaun Marsh and his 197-ball 53, for the balls counted for as the runs. Marsh is a sub-continental specialist, Handscomb a learner, a fast learner. Each has his own way, founded in his personality. For Marsh, it is absence of extravagance, for Handscomb inner conviction.

Together, but each in his way, they had to deal with a thousand variations of pace, line and trajectory, not to mention spin and bounce, and fieldsmen in the corner of their eyes, and Indian captain Virat Kohli’s slights and provocations from slip, and periodically the screeching appeals of Ravindra Jadeja. Sometimes when the spinners were operating, it must have been like facing one of those oriental gods with many arms, all whirling. They came through.

Do not forget the Herculean effort of the bowlers to draw out India’s innings for long enough for this result to become remotely within reach. Every part of a Test match connects to every other part.

And fie upon you who would outlaw the draw. Only in the AFL must it be that a match cannot stop or even slow down, and always finish in a breathless climax. Test cricket mostly hums along at a good pace now anyway, so that fifth days are rare, and draws rarer, and when they happen along usually constitute an authentic result anyway, not just an unfinished match. This was one such.

Thinks back over the day and its multifarious factors, grinding up against one another like tectonic plates. An avalanche of runs was never likely, but a shearing away of wickets was. There was the erosion of the pitch, the deterioration of the ball and then its renewal. There was the vigilance of the batsmen, the guile of the bowlers, the temperament of both. There was the passage of time, the dwindling stock of overs, the diminishing deficit and then the growing margin, the distant refuge of the draw, giving succour for Australia and urgency to India.

Informing these, there were immutable features, left-hander and right-, left-armer and right-, this end but not that, over the wicket and around, each combination making for a different game within a game. Once, Ravichandran Ashwin even bowled to Handscomb a leg-spinner. There was odd rogue bounce, though in truth fewer than predicted on a pitch that like the series confounded even Indian experts, who like real estate doomsayers continued to predict a crash that never came. There was the tactical intrigue, played with cards face up.

There was luck – one DRS reprieve each for Handscomb and Marsh by “umpire’s call” – and momentum and nerves and their conquering, and because of all this there was the knotting of all stomachs not just for minutes at a time, but hours, and they did not really start to unwind until the last hour and the truce became apparent.

Australia’s achievement is that only once did a wobble appear in the force field they created. After an hour-and-a-half of watchfulness, Steve Smith and Matt Renshaw were settled. Each “no” was not just a call, but an announcement, intent, of denial. Then Renshaw baulked Ishant Sharma in his run-up, prompting a kerfuffle with just a hint of the contrived about it. Three balls later, Ishant’s in-slanter trapped Renshaw lbw.

Three more balls later, Smith shoulder arms to a Ravindra Jadeja ball pitched outside leg-stump and was bowled off-stump. Considering the burden Smith has shouldered on this tour, it was possible to think that he had not so much padded up as buckled at the knee. Would it have been any wonder? Fatalism settled over the Australian camp.

But Renshaw and Smith had shown the way, and Handscomb and Marsh followed faithfully in their footsteps. The sun beat down, the roller wore off, the pitch crumbled apace, but the batsmen’s minds did not. Handscomb waited 78 balls to hit a four, Marsh was no less fastidious, but what were these few hours beside eternity? Kohli squandered a review, and missed a trick, bowling Ashwin too sparingly. India tried a second time to foment and distract, but it did not work. Finally, Marsh prodded a catch from Jadeja and Glenn Maxwell quickly followed, but these wickets served only to highlight the perils Australia already had safely negotiated. Kohli,for contrariness’s sake, delayed the ceasefire.

Nothing has been won yet, so it would be folly to overplay Australia’s exploits. But it should be acknowledged that against the might of India at home, Australia was fielding five men each with fewer than 10 Tests, including one who has not played for two-and-a-half years and another who has not played for five, and are without their best fast bowler and for now bearing along their next best batsman after Smith, and yet they are taking this series to the finish line. By such deeds, in such a crucible, careers are born, and sometimes eras.

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