JANUARY 5, 2018
Brief Scorecard: Australia 6 for 236 (Harris 79, Kuldeep 3-71, Jadeja 2-62) trail India 7 for 622 dec (Pujara 193, Pant 159*, Jadeja 81, Agarwal 77, Lyon 4-178) by 386 runs
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – A Test-series win for India in Australia has never looked so close, nor been better deserved. Indeed, through large parts of this tour, they have dictated terms in much the way Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting’s men had done, amassing big totals and suffocating opposition batsmen out. Cheteshwar Pujara took care of the first part of that equation. The bowlers as a group were taking care of the second part when the storm that threatened Sydney finally arrived to put an early end to proceedings.
At stumps, the hosts were 6 for 236. Marcus Harris made an eye-catching 79 and, if none of his team-mates pass that, he will hold the record for the lowest highest score in a Test series for Australia in 100 years.
Things were smooth in the morning, largely because their newest opening batsman was showing how he belonged at this level. The fast bowlers would tease his outside edge. He would leave them. Then they’d attack the stumps, he’d flick them through midwicket. The spinners didn’t get their lengths right early on and he was remarkably quick putting them away through point. On the back of three fours in an over off Kuldeep Yadav, he moved to 63 off only 80 deliveries.
Then India regrouped. They had an old ball in hand and it appears they very much relish it. In any case, the new one wasn’t offering any help. Nothing in terms of bounce. Less than nothing in terms of swing.
By sticking to their discipline – which includes maintaining the shine one one side of the ball so as to can generate reverse swing – Mohammed Shami, Kuldeep and Ravindra Jadeja became a mighty threat between overs 30 and 80. They picked up five wickets, giving away a mere 126 runs.
The wear and tear that was now on the pitch after three days’ play certainly played a part – so did brain fades from Shaun Marsh and Tim Paine – but India deserve credit for creating an environment that was hostile for batting. Even the most fluent of Australians fell to the pressure. Harris plodded along for 16 runs off 40 deliveries before he inside edged Jadeja onto his stumps.
Then came the moment of the day. Marnus Labuschagne was proving equal to the task of batting at No. 3 even though he was doing it for the first time in Test cricket. He was able to survive a vicious yorker from Jasprit Bumrah as soon as he came to the crease and then showed fine technique against the old ball tailing into him.
India had two midwickets in place to catch the errant flick shot, but the 24-year old batsman split them with a ridiculously cool boundary in the 48th over and topped it with a straight drive, in position to play such strokes because of his balance at the crease.
The next ball, Virat Kohli moved himself to silly mid-on. He also had Ajinkya Rahane move to the right, closer to square leg than midwicket. The drive was off limits now.
Shami ran in again. He was getting the ball to reverse just a touch, but by pitching it up and keeping a tight line on the stumps, he knew it could still prove troublesome. Labuschagne came onto the front foot. He knew hitting down the ground wouldn’t fetch him runs so he turned the bat face to find some on the leg side. And though he hit the ball superbly again, Rahane was there. India’s best close-catcher was there to pick up a beautifully planned wicket.
After that, Travis Head popped a full toss back to Kuldeep. If that wasn’t bad enough, the wicket had fallen four minutes before tea.
First over after the break, Tim Paine was bowled without moving his feet.
A little earlier, Shaun Marsh, who averages 18 since his century against England in January 2018, played for non-existent turn and poked a catch to slip. And Usman Khawaja, after getting himself set, slogged it straight to short midwicket.
These are simple mistakes – avoidable mistakes – especially on a flat deck. But Australia’s line-up is struggling for solidity so much that even when there is a good partnership – like the 72 the openers put on in Sydney – there is no escaping a collapse.
In the end, it was left to the herculean Pat Cummins to restore calm in the dressing room and he too looked uncertain as Kuldeep hit rhythm. The left-arm wristspinner has spoken about his struggle to adapt to red-ball cricket many times over the last six months or so. In Australia, having taken the place of the India’s premier spinner, and on a pitch that offered him very little, he is beginning to prove he belongs at Test level. An early start beckons at the SCG on Sunday. It won’t be long before he’s front and centre again.