A largely attritional day ended anti-climatically for India. For the most part of the opening day of the first Test, India matched Australia tool for tool, tactic for tactic, before blinking in the twilight phase of the game, as is characteristic in day-night Tests in Australia. Thus, from a comfortable 188/3, the visitors teetered to 233/6 at stumps.
The day was setting in beautifully for India when misfortune struck. Virat Kohli looked destined for a hundred, Ajinkya Rahane counter-attacked manfully, and the game had begun to drift from Australia in the middle of their 88-run stand. But a moment of indecision, rather indiscipline, was to undo all the discipline and discretion India’s batsmen had embodied until that moment of the match.
It’s a sequence neither Rahane nor Kohli would like to recall. Rahane bunted Nathan Lyon to mid-off, then set off for a stealthy single, before realising the ball was dangerously close to the onrushing Josh Hazlewood at mid-off. He immediately yelled at Kohli to retreat and stopped instinctively, but the Indian skipper was midway through an explosive sprint, and could not turn back to make the crease in time.
The captain was gutted, the vice-captain devastated. In a Test match, any kind of run-out should be swallowed distastefully.
It hurt India in several ways. Firstly, Kohli was looking in sublime touch, neither in a mood to dominate nor in a whim to hold back, looking set for the long haul and determined to make an impact before he returns home. He wielded absolute control, masterfully debunking each of Australia’s well-laid plans. He would not nibble into Pat Cummins’ sixth-stump barrage, or get lured into Lyon’s tempters outside the off-stump. He resisted the temptation to drive on the rise or lunge forth for the cover-drive — it was not a fast, true-bounce surface for extravagance. He neutered the inward-shaping movement of Mitchell Starc with the help of decisive foot-movement and delectable wristwork. A flicked boundary, picking the ball from off-stump, was pure art. It seemed only Kohli could get Kohli out. Until the run-out.
Secondly, such modes of dismissals could leave a trail of negativity in the middle. Suddenly, the accumulated confidence dissipates and a sense of despondency creeps in. After Kohli’s exit, Rahane seemed half the man he was in the captain’s company. Tentativeness snuck back, and 22 balls later, Starc’s nip-backer fizzed through his shaky prod and blasted onto his half-forward pad. He was as much beaten by pace and movement as the disturbance in his mind.
Thirdly, it exposed the lower-middle order to the new ball all too soon. Hanuma Vihari had got just a few sighters, in which he didn’t look particularly in control, before Josh Hazlewood nailed him in front with a delivery that skid on straight after pitching. The movement was not extravagant, but Vihari had failed to read the line of the ball. He didn’t anticipate it to be too full either, and hence was late in bringing the bat down. Only good fortune ensured that India didn’t lose more wickets before stumps.
Fourthly, such a slice of fortune energises the opponents. The wicket arrived just when the shoulders of the Australian bowlers were drooping, when they were restlessly awaiting the opportunity to take the second new ball.
In the end, the Australian bowlers harvested the rewards for their diligence and persistence. On a surface that assisted negligible movement off the surface or bounce as they would have relished, they kept the Indian batsmen on a proverbial leash without resorting to negative tactics or giving up. Cummins embodied that fire-and-brimstone mentality with unflagging energy and limitless venom. He beat Cheteshwar Pujara several times, struck Kohli’s gloves, and gifted no freebies, conceding barely a run in his first 10 overs. Hazlewood did the support act while Starc probed for seam movement for wickets, with both the old and new balls.
Interestingly, it was off-spinner Lyon who harnessed more bounce from the surface than his pace-bowling colleagues with over-spin. It was his bounce that troubled Pujara and Kohli than turn or the crosswind-aided drift.
But for a majority of the day, the Indian batsmen, especially Pujara and Kohli, dealt with the quartet without undue fuss and minimum fear. Their use of hands and feet was exemplary. There was a clarity of mind that manifested in precise stroke-making.
It made for a slow-burning but edge-of-the-seat watch. The Australians gave few loose balls, but when they did Kohli and Pujara cashed in. Only in their bid to unsettle Lyon did they take calculated gambles. But they chose the right moments, the right balls and risk-free means, though it eventually did not frazzle the masterful off-spinner.
After Pujara’s departure for a 160-ball-43, Rahane and Kohli resumed the fight in the same vein, until that spinal moment of injudiciousness.
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