The Indians batted through almost all of two days, and remained largely untroubled, but they did not quite forge an advantageous position in the Melbourne Test……
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Two balls did keep low in the day.
Cheteshwar Pujara, batting for over 300 balls and 106 runs, was shaken by a few short deliveries from Pat Cummins. The index finger took a battering. And the physio ran in to apply quick fixes.
But then, Cummins bowled one fuller. Pujara, with the short stuff on the top of his mind, stayed on his back foot. The ball shot through without bouncing much and the stumps were rattled. A day and a half worth of effort and he was walking back bemused.
And then there was Ajinkya Rahane. Perhaps the only batsman among the top five to show a semblance of … yes … intent. It is a much bandied and disliked word among many of the supposed adherents of ‘true Test cricket’. But we will get into that a bit later.
Nathan Lyon’s perseverance finally paid off in not too wholesome a manner. Already Rohit Sharma had been dropped off his bowling, off a sitter behind square on the leg side. The final ball of Lyon’s 40th over, and the ball hugged the deck as it thudded into Rahane’s pad. The batsman knew it. He did not even bother with a review.
But those two deliveries aside, nothing much happened to make life difficult for the batsmen. And in the context of the game, 443 runs in almost two full days of batting, with every batsman spending more than a while in the middle to get set, and with only seven wickets going down … that does seem way too few.
India were 123 for 2 when their two best batsmen joined forces. Granted, Pujara is a grafter. It may be his role in the side to anchor one end of the innings. But what is surprising is that his innings did not show any signs of gaining in momentum even a bit, in all the 319 balls he spent in the crease.
Indeed, he had been unbeaten on 68 off 200 balls at the end of Day One. The score read an unflattering but relatively sound 215 for 2. Virat Kohli was there at the other end, not looking his best but still unbeaten on 47. The two had added 92 in 35 overs. Perhaps, to an extent, the slow progress could be justified, keeping in mind that India have had problems with their lower order and possess the most unproductive tail in history.
Granted, today morning there was the second bite of the shining new cherry of the second new ball, and the Australian frontline pacemen were really disciplined in their efforts.
But, what were the returns?
Kohli and Pujara played through the morning session unseparated. So, after four sessions, India were still two wickets down. Were they in the driver’s seat? Not really. They never dominated. Only 61 runs were added in the 28 overs going into lunch.
And things did not change much after that. The best pair of Indian batsmen added 170 runs, but consumed 68 overs in doing that. After starting at 215 for 2 in the morning, they had added 78 runs in 33 overs. One wonders what purpose that sort of caution in the batting served other than to keep Australia a couple of wickets from getting right back in the equation.
That means that the partnership crawled at 2.5 per over, even slower 2.1 since resumption in the morning. Kohli, perhaps his back bothering him, fell uncharacteristically at 82, having spent 97 balls in the day to scratch up 35 runs. Pujara, done in by the brilliant Cummins, faced 119 balls today to add 38 to his score.
Again, the best batsmen in the side, with the scoreboard showing complete control of the game, did not push things on with a bit more intent. Even when they had added Ravindra Jadeja into the mix to ensure that there was a cushion of batting ability down the order.
A lot has been said and written about strike rate in Test cricket. After the Adelaide Test, it seemed to many that the Pujara hundred somehow ‘proved’ that strike rate is not important. Which is quite ridiculous from a logical point of view.
The conditions in the Adelaide Test were different. The pitch was a very difficult one, and no one could be expected to survive forever. Just being there was something that could win you the game. Strike rate did not quite matter there.
Out here, the equation is very simple. The crawl over two days ensured that there are just nine sessions left in the game. India will probably be able to bowl in six of them, seven if they are lucky. They have to take 20 wickets in these six or seven sessions to force a win.
Till now, the superb bowling attack of the Australians, managed only 7 in six sessions. 20 in another 6 or 7 seems quite far-fetched. It, therefore, has to be a combination of magnificent bowling by the Indians as well as rather pathetic batting by the Australians for India to drive home the advantage of batting for nearly two days. It may be some comfort to note that the Indian bowling and the Australian batting are well equipped to do the needful, but it has to be quite a remarkable combination. It is apparent through simple arithmetic, that even the most math-challenged should have the ability to decipher, that victory is quite a remote option as of now.
And speaking of the ‘advantage’ garnered through two days at the wicket, there is not much. With just 443 runs gathered in the course of two days, the scoreboard pressure is not as it would have been if India had totalled 550 or 600, as they would be expected to do if they lose only two wickets on the first day and bat through the second. Unless the hosts play really badly, the follow-on should not be too difficult to avoid. That means India batting again, and more precious time eaten out of the game, leaving the bowlers even less time to pick up their 20 wickets.
Of course, had Australia been a superb batting side, the other possibility, and a bright one, would have been their eclipsing the Indian total and taking a handy lead of their own with sufficient time to spare to put pressure back on the visitors. Remember what took place in Melbourne in 2003-04.
Again, the Australian batting is nowhere near as competent, and the Indian bowling is far superior to we saw in the series alluded to. But, there is an outside chance of that indeed taking place.
Who knows? If the pitch misbehaves, if more deliveries start keeping low, if some of them bounce awkwardly, and if Jasprit Bumrah’s testing offerings become unplayable, India may run away with the Test match.
But, in retrospect, India is in far less strong a position than they could have been if there had been a bit more urgency in their approach. The 2003-04 series had been a slug-fest between two heavyweight batting powers with ordinary bowling at their disposal. (Remember Australia were without Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, and Brett Lee was absent in two Tests, Jason Gillespie in one). This series, on the other hand, looks like a battle between two excellent bowling attacks with questionable batting to back them up.