Score or survive? The big fourth innings question
- India’s fate in Sydney now hinges heavily on its overnight batsmen, Cheteshwar Pujara and captain Ajinkya Rahane. They will restart proceedings on Monday, a delicious prospect where India need a further 309 runs in 97 overs
When Tim Paine declared the second innings at the end of Cameron Green’s assault, the Australian captain had set India a fourth innings target of 407 runs—a figure that, if achieved, will break the country’s long-standing chase record of 406. If—a big if.
That record was set nearly half a century ago in Trinidad, largely due to the centurion brothers-in-law, Gundappa Viswanath and Sunil Gavaskar. But it is also interesting to note that the West Indies attack of 1976 consisted of three specialist spinners; one of them, Imtiaz Ali, never played Test cricket again and another, Albert Padmore, lasted just one more match.
Unlike that Clive Lloyd team, which was on the threshold of realising that it was indeed all about pace, Paine’s Australia are acutely aware of who they are—the best fast bowling attack in the game today, coupled with the finest off-spinner produced on those shores in Nathan Lyon. Paine’s declaration had given them exactly four sessions to take 10 Indian wickets. After one, which ended Day 4, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood had already claimed two in India’s confident openers, Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill.
India’s fate in Sydney now hinges heavily on its overnight batsmen, Cheteshwar Pujara and captain Ajinkya Rahane. They will restart proceedings on Monday, a delicious prospect where India need a further 309 runs in 97 overs, but the result will be decided by which of Pujara and Rahane have the greater say. If Pujara is around until stumps or thereabouts on the last day, India could well thieve a draw. If it is Rahane who is around—especially the aggressive version of Melbourne 2014—the dressing room could perhaps even dream of a win.
But with chases over 400—achieved on just four occasions in the history of Test cricket—the safe bet is always on the bowling team; especially in Australia, where Virat Kohli is the only active Indian player to have scored a fourth innings hundred (141 in Adelaide 2014, when India came tantalisingly close to the target of 364).
In Kohli’s absence, Rishabh Pant is the only member of India’s playing eleven to have breached the three-figure mark in a fourth innings (114 at the Oval in 2018 as India got to 345 in a chase of 464), home or away. Pant hasn't taken the field since his batting injury, and India may well be another batsman short in Ravindra Jadeja, who has dislocated his thumb. After Pant, Rahane and Pujara are the only ones at Sydney to have achieved fourth innings fifties (the captain's unbeaten 52 in Southampton 2014 is his best).
It wasn’t a hundred, but Pujara began his career with a great fourth innings show; against the Aussies no less. On debut in Bangalore, a 22-year-old did his reputation justice by top-scoring with a gritty 72 as India hunted down the target of 207. Pujara was immediately selected for India’s next assignment, the 2010-11 tour of South Africa where a most interesting occurrence with regards to fourth innings chases was witnessed.
Set 340 runs to win not just the Cape Town Test but the series, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir came out blocking on the final day. With Sehwag presenting a dead bat often there was no ambiguity in captain MS Dhoni’s plan that day. A drawn series in South Africa—India’s only one to date—was worth more than the risk of going for a difficult win.
Sehwag played closer to his real personality when he set the tone for India’s second highest run-chase in Test cricket. Back in 2008 in Chennai, India were set a target of 387 runs with four sessions to go (like in Sydney). In the final session of Day 4, Sehwag began and ended his blazing innings of 83 (just 68 balls). That knock won him the Man of the Match over two higher innings scores by Sachin Tendulkar (103) and Yuvraj Singh (85), men who were unbeaten when the mammoth target was felled.
On Sunday, opener Rohit Sharma’s mindset was more aligned with the Sehwag of Chennai than Cape Town. It worked while it lasted. The very first ball of the innings, Sharma swivelled into a bent-knee pull to pick up two runs and make his intentions clear. Mitchell Starc was at the receiving end of Sharma, and India’s first boundary as well in the fifth over, but it was all-rounder Green who copped Sharma’s first six—a short ball retrieved from the square-leg stand.
Between those two boundaries of different outcomes, Sharma smashed a volley of fours against the bowling attack, including one off Lyon, to get to a fifty in his first overseas Test as opener. While that aggression gave him 52, it was also the cause of his downfall. Just three overs before stumps, Sharma swivelled into yet another pull against a short ball from Pat Cummins and perished in the deep.
Still, Sharma’s 52 (and the 71-run opening stand it caused with Gill, one run better than their first innings partnership) remains the biggest reason why India go into the fifth day with any hope, however remote that may be.