The ball dropped harmlessly beside KL Rahul’s left shoe. But even before the batsman realised where it was, he could see, from the side of his eyes, the fielders haring to gather the ball.
A single was beyond the wildest imagination, yet three – one from wide gully, another from short mid-wicket and the third from leg-gully – pounced on it. This was Australia ratcheting up pressure, this was the men in canary yellow weaving a maze of hostility through their energy on the field.
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A cruelly unsung feature of Australia’s resurgence has been their fielding. But it has been a riveting spectacle — elastic frames hurling themselves on the ground; throws bulleted from the outposts; catches frantically chased and swooped, boundaries intercepted with acrobatic zeal.
The Travis Head catch of Rohit Sharma was a classic instance where he backpedalled, judged the flight and dip of the ball and lunged sideways to gran the ball. Head is no Ricky Ponting on the field, but when he sniffed half an opportunity, he ran for his life and clung to it.
A vibrant bowling side is a shot of energy for bowlers. The Head catch — like Pat Cummins’s catch of Quinton de Kock in Kolkata — emboldened the bowlers, whose brand of aggression was different.
It was not aggression as you would associate aggression with, it was not aggression as you would watch on highlights reels or one that you would associate with Australia. This was not about hurling neck-blasting short balls; it was not about fiendish deviations off the surface; it was not about frightening speed.
Australia were pragmatically aggressive as well as aggressively pragmatic. This did not curdle the blood, incite loathing, provoke fear or intimidate. This would rather make you numb, freeze you in cold speechless terror. This is aggression that comes dressed in a big, bright smile, crawling under your skin with a cat’s stealth, strangling and devouring you without you knowing it.
In short, Australia came equipped with tools and plans, and significantly the know-how to make optimal use of the conditions. They had plotted schemes within schemes, traps within traps. They not only read the pitch well but read the changes it underwent over the overs.
The pitch and the conditions would not alter dramatically in the course of 50 overs. But Australia were aware of even the minutest change and devised ploys and snares accordingly. How each bowler revised their plans on the go is a fascinating narrative in itself. As were their field placings, men deployed straighter than finer, as the ball is less prone to tread finer angles on slow wickets.
With the new ball, Mitchell Starc purchased swing. But the moment the ball stopped moving around, of which Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli reminded him with a flurry of hits to the ropes and beyond it, he would pull his length back and shuffle his pace around.
The drop in pace was not substantial, but on a slow and sluggish canvas, even a drop of 15-20 kph made batting difficult. He would later return and harness reverse swing, which accounted for Rahul, the beacon of India’s hope.
Josh Hazlewood endured horror overs with the new ball, he found negligible seam movement, but he returned strongly, summoning his alternative repertoire of cutters and cross-seam balls besides diving deep into the depths of IPL experience. So was every bowler of theirs, constantly on revision mode. For what worked in one over, might not work five overs later.
It was a deck that needed the outlier tricks to prosper. Like the cross-seamers, the cutter varieties, slower balls, out-of-the-box tricks, flexibility of strategies.
Pat Cummins was a human impersonation of those virtues. The Australia captain and quick could bowl seriously fast, hammer the hard length relentlessly. Yet, his second ball of the day was a slower ball. It would become a feature of his bowling, as he frequently modulated his pace. He was as difficult to negotiate as a freshly-unveiled mystery spinner. The standard balls would clock 140 kph or thereabouts; the cutters around 125 kph and the slower balls 115 kph. The gradual descent and ascent of pace made him an ordeal to negotiate.
Slower balls on a slow track is not a novel ploy any more. Batsmen expect the assorted box of cutters and slower balls. But the execution was so precise that the batsmen, even as versatile as Kohli and Rahul, had to be content with singles and twos. That the master manipulators of gaps mustered only two fours in 29 overs attests to their discipline.
But few bowling attacks would have resorted to bouncers on the lethargic wicket. It puts enormous strain on the body to make the ball jump chest-high on a slow track. However, loopy bounce can be difficult to douse too. It disarrays the impulses of a batsman.
When the batsman judges that the length is short, he invariably shifts to the back foot in an instant, ready to defend, pull or cut. But the ball takes an eternity to climb. So often Rahul was left waiting for the ball and it would come so late that he would end up slapping the ball. The bouncer barrage might have played a role in Kohli’s dismissal as he seemed to preempt to work the short ball on the leg-side. But it was more of hard length and did not bowl as much as he had anticipated, resulting in an inside edge onto the stumps
The most macho bowling weapon was filtered out of all its machismo. It embodied their bowling too — aggressive without being macho.