Mitchell Starc bent the first ball of the day a touch away from Rohit Sharma, and he feathered an edge, which both Nitin Menon, the umpire, and the Australian team failed to detect. Three balls later, Rohit was kissed on the pad. Once again the umpire declined and Australia did not review, with replays showing the batsman was out LBW. Three quick boundaries later, Rohit attempted a massive slog sweep against the left-arm spin of Matt Kuhnemann and missed by a long way. Immediately after, Rohit jumped down the track to heave over the on side, the ball gripped, turned, beat the bat and the captain was stumped by a mile.
When Rohit looks unsettled at the crease and bats in a manner that suggests that attack is the only option, you know something is not quite right.
That something was the pitch. Sharp turn, very variable bounce and the ball stopping and coming in the first hour of a Test is not a good look. This was not like Nagpur or Delhi, where there was assistance for spinners. This was designed to make batting next to impossible. Selective watering, selective rolling, hybrid soil, so much had gone into the preparation of the surface that the result was something like deconstructed fusion food at a modern restaurant. A classic had been taken as the base and overthought to the extent that the result was unpalatable.
Shubman Gill, replacing KL Rahul at the top of the order, made 21 before nicking off to Kuhnemann. By now the ball was breaking sharply and keeping low often enough for Cheteshwar Pujara to know better than to go right back and play with an angled bat to Nathan Lyon. The off-break deviated hard off the pitch, slipped under the bat and shattered the stumps.
Ravindra Jadeja, elevated to try and disrupt the bowling, was saved from a stone-cold LBW dismissal by a thin edge, but he decided to rock back and slice Lyon through the off side off the very next ball and picked out short cover.
“Maybe because of the moisture, the ball turned sharply in the morning. We could have made more runs for sure but I don’t think anyone played rash cricket. We just had an off day as a batting unit”
Shreyas Iyer having watched the carnage that led to his arrival at the crease at 44 for 4, went back to a length ball and played the cut — not the right shot for the ball or the pitch — and inside-edged onto his stumps.
Just why India’s batsmen were playing in this manner was as baffling as the need to serve up such a lottery pitch.
In all this, Virat Kohli was finding a way. Kohli put his head down, pressed forward whenever possible and presented the straight bat, minimising the risk to the stumps the spinners posed. Even Kuhnemann could not help but stop and admire the shot when Kohli went right back and whip-flicked a delivery to the fence with an almost straight bat. Kohli got to 22, off 52 balls, when he made his first mistake, looking to work the ball to leg against the off spin of Todd Murphy. The bat came down at an angle and when Kohli missed, he was right in front of the stumps.
India limped to the lunch break at 84 for 7, avoiding the ignominy of being bowled out in a session after choosing to bat.
But, Kohli’s 22 would end up being the highest score as Kuhnemann returned figures of 9-2-16-5 and India were all out for 109.
Surely, if India were blasted out, their spinners would find a way to hit back at Australia, was the buzz around the ground, and when Travis Head went back to flick and was nailed by Jadeja, it seemed like the game was on, with Australia at 12 for 1.
Marcus Labuschagne then offered a second glimpse, going well back to a delivery that was straight and on a good length — as he has all series — to be castled. But, as he walked back the siren went off, signalling that Jadeja had overstepped. From here on Labuschagne was a different batsman, playing forward and straight.
Ravichandran Ashwin, perhaps eager to stamp himself on the game, was a touch too quick through the air and did not attack the stumps often enough, ending the day with 16 wicketless overs. Usman Khawaja (60) held an end up in 96-run partnership with Labuschagne (31) as India burned all their reviews. The game was headed in one direction only but Jadeja’s pegging away meant that Australia had lost four wickets with a lead of 47 when stumps were drawn.
Very rarely does this Indian team get in wrong in multiple aspects of the game on a single day. That it happened on a pitch that was a nightmare to bat on first up, only made matters worse.
India 109 (Kohli 22, Gill 21; Kuhnemann 5/16, Lyon 3/35) trail Australia 156/4 (Khawaja 60, Labuschagne 31, Smith 26; Jadeja 4/63) by 47 runs
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