Could a pitch be so good for you, it’s bad? Time and time again on the opening day of the first Test between India and Australia in Pune, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Jayant Yadav bowled the perfect delivery.
Over the course of the nine Tests that India have played at home this season, half of those deliveries would have ended with the Indian team in a celebratory huddle. In Pune, the ball consistently beat the bat, leaving the Indians mostly with their hands on their heads.
Here while the spinners were made to toil for their wickets, Umesh Yadav turned in a most unexpected performance to take four wickets and break the back of Australia’s innings.
Having had to endure a tough start to the Test, the Indians came storming back into the contest with quick wickets in the second half to help India end the day on a high. Umesh Yadav (4 for 32) was at the forefront of the Indian fightback, bowling to his plan and getting his apt rewards. The spinners, too, managed to pick up important wickets in between before a late Mitchell Starc blitz (57 not out) took Australia to 256 for 9.
Yadav’s performance had even Dale Steyn taking to twitter to praise the pacer. Umesh gave India their first breakthrough by sending back David Warner. He then proceeded to help India gain a stranglehold with the wickets of Matthew Wade, Steve O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon to leave the visitors tottering.
He was first used in a two-over spell, during which he removed Warner off the second ball, but Virat Kohli started to realise his impact as the innings progressed. His second burst was for four overs, during which he attacked the Australian captain’s pads and made him looked iffy. His third spell lasted six overs, and saw him being rewarded with three wickets.
At the end of the day, India would be pleased that they managed to restrict Australia to 256 despite having had a hard start, but they will certainly be rueing having given away so much to the last wicket stand (51*) of Starc and Josh Hazlewood. Matt Renshaw’s superb fifty 68 stood out, but Warner and Steve Smith also showed that even on a rank turner, the Indian spinners were not as unplayable as was made out to be.
It’s perhaps a tad ironic that Umesh took all the accolades on a pitch where the spinners were expected to run riot. The pitch had all the makings of a dream wicket for the spinners. After much talk about the pitch, the players were welcomed with a pitch so dry, Ravi Shastri on commentary said it would have to see a dermatologist to fix it. Australia won the toss and elected to bat, and murmurs of another collapse to spin grew louder.
India started with Ishant Sharma and R Ashwin, not surprising given the wicket and two left-handers at the crease. Kohli looked keen on hurting the visitors early. By the ninth over, India had Ashwin and Jayant Yadav, brought in as replacement for Bhuvneshwar Kumar, bowling in tandem. However, the Australian openers came out with a clear plan and executed it perfectly. Renshaw used his height to great advantage to play predominantly off the front foot and kill the threat Ashwin offered, while Warner curbed his attacking instinct and kept his wicket intact.
India’s plan was not off the mark either. Ashwin bowled with great control to regularly beat the bat, but the wicket they were waiting for just wouldn’t come. Jayant, at the other end, was slightly off radar and Australia quickly picked the runs to move them close to fifty. In the 15th over, Jayant had Warner bowled down the leg side, but unfortunately for India, the offie had over-stepped.
With the sun beating down, India’s body language too slowly dropped. Ashwin switched ends, bowled around the wickets and even went in between the umpire and the stumps to eke out a breakthrough, but Australia stood firm. They had managed to quieten down the smattering of people who had braved the heat to watch the game. Ironically, the breakthrough for India came from their pacer.
For 27 overs, Umesh was not needed apart from while fielding the ball. When he got the ball, he needed just two deliveries to send back Warner, out bowled, for 38. While Warner was dismissed, Renshaw too made his way back to the pavillion after complaining about an upset stomach. The tall left-hander looked calm and settled during his knock until then, but an upset tummy suddenly gave India renewed hope with two new players at the crease.
Shaun Marsh and Smith kept the Indians at bay for nearly 20 overs, but were able to score only 37 runs during the time. Marsh was out trying to sweep Jayant, but ended up gloving it to Kohli at leg-slip. Peter Handscomb strode out to the middle for his trial by fire, having impressed hugely during the home Tests.
He used his feet brilliantly and looked to rotate strike as regularly as possible, but was caught plumb in front by a quick Jadeja delivery. In the very next over, Australia suffered another massive blow as Smith got out looking to force the issue against Ashwin. Mitchell Marsh’s stay at the crease lasted just 18 deliveries, as he was out LBW to become Jadeja’s second victim. From a position of promise at 119 for 1, Australia had slid to a precarious 166 for 5.
Renshaw, who walked out to bat at the fall of Handscomb’s wicket, batted with renewed vigour. He was more positive against the spinners, unafraid to hit over the top or employ the sweep. He went on to bring up his fifty soon after, but Australia were no close to being out of trouble.
Umesh pushed them further down with another fiery spell that resulted in the wicket of Matthew Wade, LBW for 8, while Ashwin ended Renshaw’s delightful knock by getting him caught at slip for 68. Umesh struck a double blow off consecutive deliveries to send back O’Keefe and Lyon, but couldn’t wrap it up for the hosts.
Starc then used the long handle to good effect to tonk some big sixes, and get himself to an important fifty, as Australia edged past the psychological 250-run mark.
It turned out to be a day of what could-have-beens. India would be left wondering how so many good deliveries didn’t end up in wickets, while Australia will rue the fact that they threw away a golden opportunity for a strong first innings total on a tough wicket.
Brief Scores: Australia 256/9 (Matt Renshaw 68, Mitchell Starc 57*; Umesh Yadav 4-32, R Ashwin 2-59) vs India