Australia appear two different teams – one when Steve Smith scores, and the other when he is out cheaply. In the ongoing Border Gavaskar Trophy series, the ace batsman has two runs in three innings (1 & 1* at Adelaide and 0 at the MCG). That has meant, India have dominated three of the three-and-a-half days of play in all so far.
The relief and celebration that accompanies Smith’s wicket tells you how much India value his wicket. R Ashwin has got him both times; a delirious sprint and leap shows that plans in place for Smith are working smoothly.
India still trail 1-0 because of a calamitous half-session in Adelaide. That 36 all out, India’s lowest Test score, and the absence of skipper Virat Kohli and injured pacer Mohammed Shami led to many experts writing off India’s chances. When stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane lost the toss and Australia batted first in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne, everyone waited for how India would react to the Adelaide blow.
The touring side came out fighting on Saturday. With their bowlers firing on all cylinders, they bundled out Australia for 195. Jasprit Bumrah (4/56), R Ashwin (3/35) and debutant pacer Mohammed Siraj (2/40) handed India the advantage on Day 1.
From 36 all out to 36/1 at stumps, the batting response too was positive. Debutant opener Shubman Gill and Cheteshwar Pujara were at the crease, though 159 runs behind India will be wary of the damage Australia bowlers can inflict after the first-Test collapse.
Few bowling attacks have reined in Smith, especially at the MCG. Against India, he has an overall average of 75 plus; the last time, he hit 192 against India at the ground. Before the series, India’s game plan for Smith involved Jasprit Bumrah, but it is Ashwin who has surprised him. At Adelaide, he forced Smith to edge to slip for one run; on Saturday, the off-spinner removed him for an eight-ball duck – caught at leg-slip trying to turn the ball – after cutting out the pace and bounce. It was Smith’s first zero for four years.
If India had any disappointment over losing the toss, it vanished quickly. With Australia down to 38/3, belief and spring in their step were back.
In the 2017 Dharamsala Test, stand-in skipper Rahane outwitted Australia (with spin, that of chinaman bowler, Kuldeep Yadav). He again eased into the leadership role, making one fine move after another. He brought on Ashwin as early as the 11th over and Australia, looking to attack through opener Mathew Wade, floundered as the spinner took two of the three wickets that fell in the first session.
The left-handed opener tried to play around the field to put the bowlers off their length. After successfully targetting new-ball bowler Umesh Yadav, Wade (30 runs, 39 b) tried to take on Ashwin. He first moved inside and guided a ball to the square-leg fence. Next ball, he got too adventurous and charged down, but Ashwin pulled back the length and Ravindra Jadeja caught the miscued hit at wide mid-on, adroitly avoiding a collision with Gill while completing the catch.
Three runs later, Smith turned Ashwin to Pujara at leg gully. At lunch, Australia were 65/3 in 27 overs with Marnus Labuschagne on 26.
Earlier, Bumrah mapped the conditions quickly. With a tinge of grass cover and early moisture in the wicket, there was movement on offer. Bumrah was spot on with a fuller length to set the tone. The away swing caught opener Joe Burns in two minds. Burns had to cover for Bumrah’s natural incoming ball when pitched around off-stump and the bowler duly got the edge in his third over.
The first four scored off Ashwin was in his ninth over, Travis Head clip on the leg-side. After lunch, when India needed to break the fourth-wicket partnership (86) between Labuschagne and Head, Bumrah returned and got the latter, making it 124/4.
On match eve, the unassuming Rahane said he will be his own man, and back his instincts. That calmness was on display. The bowlers were at the batsmen with attacking lengths and Rahane backed them with fielders in catching positions. The repair job of the Australia innings fell to Labushagne. As Ashwin gave air and got the ball to dip, Rahane posted four close-in fielders in the first session for the Australia No.3 – three of them in the leg cordon. Head had to deal with a short-leg and two fielders in catching positions on the off-side.
Good captains get everyone involved. Vice-captain Cheteshwar Pujara and Ashwin rallied behind Rahane with suggestions. Bumrah took on the mentor’s role for the pacers.
But the story of the day was Mohammed Siraj. The debutant chipped in with two crucial breakthroughs to ensure there was no let-up. Rahane had done his homework on the new addition to the pace attack. Siraj bowls best a little deeper into his spells. Despite a typically slow start, Siraj’s first six-over spell was an economical 0/24. The 26-year-old was given time to settle in before being brought on.
True to reputation, the Hyderabad player struck a big blow when he got top-scorer Labuschagne (48 – 4×4), caught brilliantly by Gill at backward square-leg, for his maiden Test wicket. Continuing his fine spell after tea, Siraj set up two-Test-old Cameroon Green with away-going deliveries before bringing one in to trap him leg before.
NO PAINE HEROICS
India had reduced Australia to 111/7 at Adelaide too before skipper Time Paine (73*) – helped by dropped catches – rallied Australia. Ashwin ensured there won’t be a repeat, having the keeper-batsman caught low at leg slip by Hanuma Vihari. It brought Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc together and they looked nervous.
Rahane could use Bumrah as an out and out attacking option. Starc looked to counter-attack when Bumrah bowled a sharp bouncer, and the top-edge was taken at fine leg. Jadeja ended the innings by having Cummins also caught in the deep, both caught by Siraj.
All eyes were on Gill when India batted. The 21-year-old was lucky when Labuschange grassed him off Starc at slips for four. He grew in confidence with each ball. He had started to hurt Australia (28* off 38 balls), playing quality strokes for five fours.