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Australia was worried into a cautious declaration because of India’s batting firepower and a flat MCG pitch, with captain Steve Smith admitting that snuffing out all hope for the tourists was more important than winning the Boxing Day Test.
The first draw in a Melbourne Test since 1997 delivered the Border-Gavaskar Trophy back into Australian possession but there were muted celebrations at the MCG when Smith and MS Dhoni agreed to call off the match with four overs left and India six wickets down.
Smith felt there was no prospect of a result at this point, and defended the decision to bat on until lunch by saying that he wanted to remove all possibility of an Indian win, which would have kept the series alive.
The declaration left Australia’s bowlers 70 overs to take ten wickets and set India 384 to win, well beyond the highest successful runchase in MCG history.
“I don’t think there was a win still there to be honest, all our bowlers were pretty cooked and it was time to finish, there wasn’t much breaking up in the wicket, there wasn’t much going on. I think that was it,” Smith said of the early finish.
He admitted the country’s attacking mantra was secondary to the desire to win back the trophy, which was lost during the hellish tour of India in 2013. He also suggested India’s defensive tactics when Shaun Marsh and Ryan Harris were batting on Tuesday morning influenced the decision.
“We do say we always play to win but it was one of those circumstances. India had an opportunity to take the new ball and they didn’t do that,” Smith said. “We thought, you know what? We will give you a few less overs to get these runs. I thought they might have come out a bit harder and gone after us at the start and we might have got a few wickets there and we have got through their tail pretty quickly recently but it didn’t turn out that way. We still got a series win which was important to us.”
Marsh was run out on 99 after he was told a declaration was imminent. Smith was conscious of India’s bold bid to win the first Test in Adelaide, when the tourists fell 48 runs short.
“Yeah a little bit, and I think the wicket out here was much better than Adelaide. At least Adelaide broke up and spun a lot for Nathan, which created opportunities there. We certainly didn’t have that out here. It was a very good wicket to bat on and we didn’t want to give them an opportunity.”
Dhoni said the declaration was Australia’s territory but that he was ready to play out the day. “I was ready to play. I’d played 14, 15 overs, another four overs, maybe they were too tired to bowl four overs. That’s a very Aussie answer I’ve given,” he said.
“I changed my mind a couple of times, I wasn’t quite sure when to pull out, but as I said, I didn’t really want to give India a crack with the batters they had in the shed and how good that wicket was.”
India stumbled to 3-19 in the 9th over, but Virat Kohli again led the resistance with 54 to add to his brilliant 169 in the first innings.
Ryan Harris was named man of the match for his 74 in the first innings and six wickets for the Test.
The Australians, who will take a two-nil lead to the SCG, had their chances. They dropped three catches during India’s first innings and on Tuesday the dangerous Ajinkya Rahane was dropped on 22 and Ravi Ashwin on 1. Kohli was almost run out for four, prompting another verbal stoush with Brad Haddin.
“I reckon a win went begging when we dropped a couple of catches a few days ago,” Smith said. “Our fielding was below par for us in this Test match which was disappointing, we certainly let a few opportunities slip which never helps.”
Harris also defended the late declaration.
“We wanted to win the series, that was the thing when we started out the day. The question is going to be, did we bat too long? No we didn’t. We wanted to win the series and we didn’t want to give India a sniff. They only had to draw the series to retain the trophy, we have to win it and we’ve won it now,” he said.
“We always play to win but they chase big totals which we saw in Adelaide. A draw is a draw, but we win the series.”
Injured skipper Michael Clarke, who famously declared behind to conjure a victory against the West Indies in Barbados in 2012, discussed Smith’s options on Channel Nine before play.
“I would like to think Steve is certainly still thinking about winning the game,” Clarke said.
“Obviously Australia is up in the series but I think our attitude in my whole career has always been about how we can win the Test match so I’d like to think the boys are up there talking about that. Then I think Steve will work out what he feels is the right amount of time to bowl India out.”
Former Australian captain Mark Taylor said Smith would be wary of letting India back into the series.
“He’s way in front in the game and two-nil up in the series, so he doesn’t want to throw away a game with one [Test] to come but he will be thinking about winning for sure,” Taylor said. “He gets himself into a a position where they are way in front and say, you come and get them… If you want to keep this series alive, you chase them.”
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