India need two wickets on the final day at the MCG to secure a 2-1 series lead against Australia. With just one Test to follow, that will ensure the visitors cannot lose the series.
Debutant Mayank Agarwal and relative Test novice Rishabh Pant added 29 runs to their team’s dismal overnight score of 54-5 before Agarwal played on to a ball that kept low from Pat Cummins to complete the bowler’s third five-for in his 17th Test.
Agarwal’s defiant second innings 42 came off 102 balls (4×4, 2×6), giving him a match total of 118 in his debut Test – a superb contribution from the 27-year-old.
Pant helped the lower order through to a score of 106, when he became the eighth wicket to fall, glancing a catch to wicketkeeper Tim Paine off Josh Hazlewood after scoring 33 off 43 balls (3×4, 1×6). Kohli immediately called the batters in, sensing that a target of 399 would be beyond the reach of the struggling Australian batting lineup.
Cummins ended the inning with his Test-best figures of 11-3-27-6, far surpassing his previous best of 6-79, and also registering his best Test match bowling figures of 9-99 following his first innings contribution of 3-72.
Hazlewood picked up the wickets of Rohit Sharma and Pant to return figures of 10.3-3-22-2 (econ 2.09), while Nathan Lyon was surprisingly wicketless off his 13 overs, returning 0-40 (econ 3.07).
Australia had lost openers Marcus Harris (13) and Aaron Finch (3) by the time the score reached 33, after which the top order made a fist of it. Usman Khawaja (33), Shaun Marsh (44) and Travis Head (34) all made starts, but couldn’t convert them into substantial innings’ as Australia drifted towards certain defeat with the score on 157-6. Tim Paine (26 off 67 balls) and Mitchell Starc (18 off 27) then gave Cummins vital support down the order as Australia finished the day on 258-8.
After his bowling heroics to keep Australia in with a sniff in the Test, Cummins carved out only his second Test half-century late on the fourth afternoon, ending the day undefeated on 61 off 103 balls for his highest score in Test cricket to mark a memorable day personally, albeit that Australia are staring down the barrel of a Defeat Gun that is cocked and loaded.
Australia need 141 more runs to win with just two wickets in hand, but anyone with a sense for the history of Test cricket will not write the Aussies off just yet. However, it’s doubtful that much money will be placed on an Aussie win, unless Messrs Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh have been keeping an eye on this Test and have spotted some enticing odds offered by the bookies.
Indian skipper Virat Kohli could have asked for little more from his four frontline bowlers on a highly pleasing day for the visitors, with Ravindra Jadeja (3-82), Jasprit Bumrah (2-53), Mohammed Shami (2-71) and Ishant Sharma (1-37) all weighing in with valuable contributions to put their side on the verge of what will be a momentous Test win at the mighty MCG.
With a combined eight Tests between them, one senses that one or both of the Aussie openers might be culled from the side ahead of the fourth and final Test that follows at Sydney on 3 January, although Mitchell Marsh’s failure to contribute with bat or ball after being recalled for this Test will also put him under the microscope.
One thing is certain, however – all Australian cricket fans will be ruing the day when David Warner allegedly said to Cameron Bancroft, ‘hey mate, why don’t you take this piece of sandpaper for a walk?’ The subsequent Sandpapergate bans have devastated Australian cricket following the year-long ban for two of the game’s top batters, but on the plus side the error of their ways has hopefully given the rest of the world a severe wake-up call.
The consequences of being caught cheating on the cricket field are very real and can run extremely deep, and while one senses that Australia would still have struggled in this series against India, the risk and reward that the Australians dabbled with at Newlands earlier this year has clearly given strength to the motto that ‘cheaters never prosper’.
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