The opener Aaron Finch had the better part of three days to ruminate on his attempt to drive Ishant Sharma on the up through cover in the first over of Australia’s first innings, resulting in a duck for him and spectacularly cartwheeling stumps for the viewers. Starting anew, he was again in trouble against Ishant’s new-ball movement, only reprieved from an lbw and a pair by the bowler’s fractional overstepping of the crease line for a retrospective no-ball.
Having gone on from there to survive nearly an hour, with tea fast approaching, Finch had a split-second decision to make upon being given out caught, apparently off pad and glove, by short leg from the wily R Ashwin. It appeared that Finch’s glove and pad had come into contact about the same time the ball hit the pad, before jumping up very close to the same glove. Walking down the pitch towards Marcus Harris, he appeared to mouth the words “it hit my pad”, but lacking a clear picture of what had happened, Finch chose not to review. Surer, and clearer, Finch would undoubtedly have done so – this muddled exit was the wage of Test cricket.
At the other end, Harris was making another useful start to his second innings in Tests, leaving well, rotating the strike and cuffing the occasional boundary. When he punched Ashwin through cover and then flicked with great panache through midwicket when the bowler straightened his line next ball, it was possible for a rare occasion all match to admire an Australian batsman for the simple purity and attractiveness of their shot-making.
Yet looking at home and staying at home are quite different things, something underlined when Mohammad Shami tempted Harris into an error he quickly regretted. Following a trio of stumps-bound deliveries from around the wicket, Shami drew wider and shorter, offering Harris a chance to punch for a decompression single to the deep point. In keeping with the pitch’s variable pace all match, a little extra skid gained edge rather than middle, and Harris went from platform building to exit seeking in an instant. A debut double of 26 in each innings showed ample talent, but guarantees nothing; just ask Mark Ramprakash.
Most telling of all, however, was the fall of Khawaja, so serene a little more than a month ago in Dubai. Since then he has coped with knee surgery, a rapid rehab, a single Sheffield Shield match and the bizarre tale of his brother’s arrest by New South Wales police in Sydney, two days out from the start of the match. At the start of the Test, Khawaja seemed set to write a triumphant script, diving breathlessly to catch Virat Kohli in the gully on a lively first morning. But he found himself mired in shotlessness while trying to build Australia’s first innings, eventually succumbing to an excellent delivery from Ashwin, and seemed intent on a different approach second time around.
Here it was worth recalling the words of Justin Langer on the third morning, in which he noted how Sachin Tendulkar had made note of the defensive manner in which the Australians had played. “After the day’s play I knew there’d be a lot of comments about, like Sachin’s comments, I knew that’s what they’d say,” Langer had told Fox Sports. “And if that starts affecting our players then that’s going to really hurt us…”
Though Khawaja is not noted as a particularly comprehensive reader of such things, in contrast to the likes of Michael Clarke and Steven Smith, his desire to attack and assert was palpable, resulting in numerous false strokes even as his tally of dots mounted up once again. Ultimately, having sweated through 41 balls for eight, he advanced to an Ashwin delivery to which he was never going to reach the pitch, and skewed an ugly miscue to deep cover. The pressure of the day, the week and perhaps the month had all told, much as it did soon after for Peter Handscomb, beaten for pace when trying to null Shami and lobbing a simple catch to midwicket.
But amid these errors, this wearing down of Australia, there was one tale to contradict it all. Marsh has been subject to more scrutiny than any other player in the side this week, not least after his drag on to the stumps in the first innings completed a sequence of 16, 7, 7, 0, 3, 4 and 2 in his seven most recent Test innings. A famously nervous starter, Marsh was facing plenty of reasons for sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat as he walked to the middle on the fourth evening, but amid the failings of others, he was able to sculpt the beginnings of an innings that demonstrated not only talent but ability to withstand the mental strain of a Test match.
He went to stumps with Travis Head, another batsman to perform well this week, in the knowledge that the 219 runs required to win were distant if not quite impossible. While it is difficult to imagine a spidercam swooping down to interview either batsman should they make it through to first drinks on Monday, the final twist to this five-day tale will make for decent viewing.