Limp declaration and what might have been is revealed

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Here is what didn’t happen at the MCG on Tuesday. Shaun Marsh didn’t make a century, falling half a length short. Australia didn’t declare until lunch. Australia didn’t take three good chances, a catch and two run-outs, any of which might have delivered the fatal blow to India. Their mantra for the day was “10 opportunities”. As it transpired, they made 10, but took only six.

Nathan Lyon, seven-wicket fifth-day hero in Adelaide, didn’t take a wicket, which was above all a reflection of a pitch inadvertently too well preserved by untimely rain breaks.

In Adelaide, Lyon bowled 34 overs, here merely 12. The best finger spinner of the day was delivered by Mitch Johnson, a change-up ball to bowl the hapless Cheteshwar Pujara. It was insult added to injury: the previous two balls had been bouncers, one hitting Pujara in the helmet.

India’s tail didn’t collapse, for once, though the change room must have been a tremulous place when the sixth wicket fell with 15 overs still to bowl.

Australia didn’t button their mouths, choosing instead to engage Virat Kohli at every turn, though the evidence of his and other series is that Kohli revels in it. In Brisbane, India made the mistake of inciting Mitch Johnson. Here, Australia fell into the same trap of tripping traps. It is not enough for both sides to hide behind their platitudinous formulations about hard and fair. This series is again being in conspicuously nasty humour, doing neither team any credit. Galvanised, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane shared another long partnership to put the Test just beyond Australia’s fingertips.

Australia didn’t win. And India didn’t lose.

Cricket is a game in which what doesn’t happen often matters as much as what does. In the morning, Australia batted on and on at the meditative rate of 2.5 runs an over, until even the crowd was hollering for a declaration. When at last one was called, India’s target was 384 from 70 overs.

By contemporary world standards, it was a timid declaration, nearly un-Australian. It dated from a time when it was acceptable to settle for a draw, if that would make your position in the series impregnable. Presumably, it was predicated on the heft of India’s batting. Although the focus has been on their spectacular late order implosions, the fact is that in three Tests in this series, they have made only 128 runs less than England made in five last summer.

Weighing also in Australia’s deliberations would have been the belief that India would be compelled to chase even an improbable total or surrender the series, and that their desperation might play into Australia’s hands. You might even have called it a passive aggressive declaration. But the timing bore the hallmarks of a decision made by a committee rather than the captain. It was notable that when at last they were agreed, it was coach Darren Lehmann who called the halt.

The collateral victim was Marsh, who was unflappable for 4 hours, but suddenly had felt strangled by the field and the circumstances, and tried to take a tippety 100th run, and failed.

But Australia’s hunch was well-founded. With a reshuffled order, India began with bold intentions, but three wickets in the first six overs changed the complexion of the contest. It became an all-day siege.

Wickets fell inopportunely for India, but for once never in a rush after that early list. Kohli did as he has all series, snarled like a brigand and batted like a dream. Nothing took him by surprise, not pace, not bounce, not spin, not Australia’s many epithets, nothing other than the two moments when partners baulked at runs. He is in such form that his few false shots are now recognisable milestones in the series. When he played one to the first ball after tea, turning Ryan Harris directly to square leg, no one was more shocked than him.

But the impressive Rahane coolly took up Kohli’s commission, standing on the bridge for 3 hours, until shovelling a pull from Josh Hazlewood to square leg. It was long enough – just. For Australia’s bowlers, it just didn’t happen. M.S. Dhoni and Ravi Ashwin, each holding up an end for the other, survived without significant scare until the end, another non-happening. With four overs still to bowl, a truce was called, inexplicably.

India escaped with a draw, and Australia had to settle for one. For India, it was both a form of defeat, since it meant forfeiture of the Border-Gavaskar trophy, and a form of victory, halting a five-match losing streak. For Australia, it broke a 10-match winning run at home. It was not that the end failed to justify the means this day, just that in the end, there was no end.

A draw: cricket’s unique perversity, a result that didn’t happen, and yet did.

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