Three wickets needed, a wearing SCG pitch, the light fading, India trying to cling on for a draw – it could have been the 2008 finish all over again. But Michael Clarke was in the commentary box this time, not out in the middle with ball in hand, and Ajinkya Rahane and Bhuvneshwar Kumar held their nerve, and held off the Australian charge. Steven Smith’s side instead had to settle for a draw and a 2-0 series victory.
At tea on the final day, India needed 189 for an unlikely win with eight wickets in hand; Virat Kohli and Murali Vijay were at the crease. But both men fell soon after the resumption, and with the ball reverse-swinging, the pitch providing variable bounce for Nathan Lyon, and the momentum with Australia, they were followed inside by Suresh Raina, Wriddhiman Saha and R Ashwin.
But then came the match-saving partnership between Rahane and Bhuvneshwar, who survived for nearly 12 overs. Bhuvneshwar handled the final one of the match from Lyon, confident enough to even drive the first delivery to the long-off boundary with all the fieldsmen up, and India reached safety. It was a draw, but after their loss in similar circumstances in Adelaide, it was also an achievement.
Both men showed impressive calmness, Rahane doing his best to take most of the bowling himself, Bhuvneshwar able to keep Lyon’s sharp offbreaks down instead of flying to the assortment of men close-in on the leg side. Smith tried all four of his frontline bowlers in the dying stages, but it was to no avail; India finished on 7 for 252, with Rahane on 38 and Bhuvneshwar on 20.
Notably, Australia did not break through in the final 10 overs of the match, after Smith took the new Kookaburra. He might later have reflected that a reverse-swinging bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Hazlewood, in particular, was getting the old ball to tail in to India’s right-handers. Starc proved a handful with it as well, but they were unable to get the new ball to talk.
The session had started with all results possible, although India’s victory chances required a change in approach after they seemed focussed on the draw for most of the day. Vijay had twice taken Lyon for 16 in an over earlier, but when he tried to lift the tempo against Hazlewood’s pace his attempted cut resulted in an easy take for Brad Haddin, and he was out for 80.
Kohli followed on 46 when Starc got one to straighten and caught the edge through to Shane Watson at first slip, and thus started a mini-collapse that had the Sydney crowd roaring. Raina completed a pair in his first Test for two and a half years, trapped lbw when Starc moved a ball back in, and India’s 2 for 178 had become 5 for 203.
It was 6 for 208 when Saha was done by a Lyon offbreak that stayed perilously low and struck him directly in line with middle stump. The last hour began with Australia four wickets from victory, and they claimed one when Ashwin, who had held out for 22 balls for his single run, was lbw when Hazlewood reversed the old ball in late and struck him in front.
But then came the new ball, and as it turned out, new hope for India. Hazlewood and Starc had been miserly all day, both conceding less than two an over. That helped to build the pressure as Lyon toiled at the other end, but for the first four hours of the day India handled the situation well, losing only one wicket in each session.
Occasionally India, or more specifically Vijay, went on the attack. Sixteen runs came from Lyon’s penultimate over before tea, as Vijay used his feet to lift a six and a four down the ground, and swept another boundary. Another 16 had come in a Lyon over before lunch, including a lofted six over midwicket from Vijay, although in the same over Vijay edged a ball that ricocheted off Haddin and lobbed just out of reach of Watson at slip.
It was that kind of day for the Australians, half chances falling just out of reach and, on occasion, being dropped. Shaun Marsh at short cover put down a tough when Vijay had 42 and the bowler, Ryan Harris, responded in frustration next delivery when Vijay pushed the ball back to him and Harris hurled it at the stumps, only to see it bounce in the footmarks and over the head of the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin for four overthrows.
In the next over, Rohit Sharma pushed at Watson and edged wide of slip, where Smith hurled himself to his right to clutch a stunning one-handed catch. The only other wicket to fall in the first two-thirds of the day was KL Rahul’s, who advanced to Lyon but failed to get to the pitch of the ball and was caught off his glove at backward short leg.
Australia nearly made it two from two deliveries when Rohit’s first ball resulted in a perilously close stumping chance; the TV umpire decided that there was enough doubt as to Rohit’s foot position to reprieve him. At that point, India were all about defence, trying to get themselves into a solid position before any thoughts of victory entered their minds.
Not surprisingly, Australia had declared on their overnight score and set India 349 to win. For the third time in the series, the match went down to the last hour of the fifth day. There was no repeat of the dramatic Australian win in Adelaide, but nor was it the tamer draw of Melbourne. This result was somewhere in between, thrilling in its way, but with neither side coming out on top.
And in the end, 2-0 seemed a fitting scoreline in a series in which Australia were more consistently strong all round, but India fought hard and showed impressive resolve.