Top four help themselves to easy runs as Smith’s men end first day at 348 for 2
In cricket, there are infinite ways to let a game slip. India discovered a fresh one on the first day of the final Test, and, for perhaps the only time on this tour, there wasn’t even the slightest sense of a contest as Australia’s batsmen romped to 348 for 2 at the SCG on Tuesday (January 6). This wasn’t so much a case of high-class batting, although Australia’s top order ticked all the boxes neatly enough, as much as a tired team at the fag end of a joyless tour being further stretched.
Questions will be asked about India’s team selection, most pertinently why Varun Aaron, who flew a little over 9000 kilometres to be back in Sydney for the Test, was benched, even after left knee pain ruled Ishant Sharma out. On this tour, Ishant has been the one bowler the captain has been able to turn to for relief, with the tall man showing the skill and control to land the ball consistently where he wanted to.
But, even with the team that was picked – Cheteshwar Pujara and Shikhar Dhawan were dropped, allowing Suresh Raina to make a comeback after a gap of two years and Rohit Sharma to return after having missed out in Melbourne – there was no excuse for the execution on the day.
Virat Kohli likes to attack, but to be able to do so, you must have bowlers who can build pressure. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, having recovered from an ankle injury, loves to pitch the ball up, giving it every chance to swing, but these were conditions in which even the best wrist position and deft release could not get the ball to deviate off the straight.
That India put down the two chances it created, one at the start of the day, and the other at close, means it left itself more than faintly embarrassed. The first opportunity came in the 8th over, Chris Rogers slashing a healthy edge to slip, only for KL Rahul to watch the ball into his hands and out. Slip catches don’t come much easier than this one, and Rahul will be wondering how he can get any joy out of Test cricket.
If the first fluff of lines was a case of failing to give themselves a chance to set up the game, the second was one in which a chance to reclaim lost ground was squandered. Shane Watson, enduring a run of diffident form, had hung in there gamely to get to 57, when he hung his bat out to Umesh Yadav off the penultimate ball of the day. R Ashwin moved to his left at first slip, going two-handed, but the ball burst through to race away to the boundary.
To view the game only through the prism of India’s failings, however, would do a disservice to Australia’s cricketers. For starters, there was concern over how Australia’s players will pull up given the emotion around their return to the scene of Phillip Hughes’s fatal blow.
When Kohli called incorrectly at the toss, Steve Smith was quick to choose to bat, and it soon became clear that this mutable Sydney pitch – which has gone from turner to seamer to flat deck back to turner – was going to make life incredibly hard for bowlers. With this being the hand they were dealt, India’s bowlers should have quickly realised that the only way to succeed was to dry up the runs, bowling to very specific fields and plans to each of the top-order batsmen. On a big ground, though, this is easier said than done, and India did itself no favours.
David Warner suffered one tricky moment, when he worked a single to get from 62 to 63, and unbeaten like his little mate, he fell to the ground on that spot on pitch No. 7, to kiss the turf. After he had negotiated the bouncers that came to him on a score that is both celebrated and feared, Warner was on his way. In the lead-up to this match, Rogers expressed a desire to fire in an innings when his partner was already booming, and the manner in which this unfolded was morale draining for the opposition.
Warner and Rogers put on an even 200 for the first wicket, these runs coming at nearly 4.5 per over. Warner, on 101, tried to work Ashwin to leg, and the one bowler who looked like he knew what he was trying to achieve out in the middle had the breakthrough as the ball popped to gully. Seven balls and four runs later, Rogers followed Warner back to the dressing room, dragging Mohammed Shami onto his stumps, missing out on a richly deserved century, falling five short.
India had finally made something happen, and this would have been the time to press on, but this was not a pitch on which wickets would fall in clumps. Watson, desperate for runs, and Smith, scoring them for fun at the moment, bedded down and cashed in.
When stumps were drawn, with Australia on 348 for 2, Watson had 61 to his name, although he should have been sent back on 57, and Smith was 18 short of making his fourth consecutive century of the series. Given that his earlier scores have been 162*, 133 and 192, India will be sick of the sight of him, burying the opposition as he is with the most innocent of smiles on his face. If India wants any joy of its own, it will have to wipe that smile off Smith’s face sooner rather than later.
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