The choice of Kuldeep Yadav as a replacement of Ishant Sharma was surprising. Not only is he short of match practice in red-ball cricket, but spinners have also had a very difficult time in Sydney for the last 10 years.
A score of 303 for 4 is daunting. The Australians will perhaps have more problems in sleeping easy because of the ‘not out’ on the scoreboard that accentuates Cheteshwar Pujara’s continuing thorn-like presence in the flesh of their efforts.
The hosts did have an inkling of being back in the game after Ajinkya Rahane gloved a Mitchell Starc bouncer to Tim Paine, the scoreboard reading 228 for 4 in the process. They had already captured the huge wicket of Virat Kohli, for the second time running caught trying to work the ball fine to the leg-side.
But Hanuma Vihari, freed of the shackles of opening the innings, scorched the off-side with a flurry of fiery boundaries, wrenching the initiative away once again, helping the side cross the psychological barrier of 300, even as Pujara remained obstinately immovable from the batting crease.
Advantage does lie with India at the end of Day One. In a big way too.
Yet, the Aussies are not completely out of the game. A quick wicket early in the morning, with the ball still relatively new, and Rishabh Pant will be in. Pant is useful with the bat, and Ravindra Jadeja has been showing ominous signs of maturing. But, the Australian pacers, who have had a rather frustrating day, will perhaps back themselves against these stroke-making southpaws. And then Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah constitute another of the very brittle tails that India have fielded in the series so far.
So, getting the Indians out within a manageable total is still on the cards.
But, the Australians are batting second on a wicket that some have felt will break with time. And the Indians do have two spinners in their midst.
That brings us to the bold call of India to go in with two tweakers. True, the decision was influenced by the unavailability of Ishant Sharma due to a strained rib-cage. But in the absence of Ravichandran Ashwin, yet another bowler suffering from injury, opting for the young left-arm wrist-spinner is one of the many rather courageous selection calls that the management has made in recent times.
Some of these selections have been rather bizarre and one cannot help but wonder whether playing Kuldeep will turn out to be one of them. Pitch-forking the youngster into action at this stage, and thereby changing the successful strategy of three pacemen in this vital contest, comes across as rather surprising.
What makes it even more curious is that Kuldeep is desperately short of match practice. His last red-ball game was the Hyderabad Test against West Indies last October. In Australia, he has not even played in the practice match.
Yes, the popular perception is that the Sydney wicket helps spin. Perhaps we can say that was the case in the past. Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill have enjoyed themselves here, as have Richie Benaud and Ian Johnson if we go way back in time. Even Bob Holland bowled Australia to a win over West Indies. Among visiting men, Bishan Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, John Emburey and Geoff Miller ruled over the Packer-depleted Australians out here, great spinners like Jim Laker and Derek Underwood were successful against the better Aussie sides. Ravi Shastri and Shivlal Yadav had Alan Border’s men on the mat in 1985-86 and Anil Kumble got his 12 wickets in the 2003-04 showdown.
But, the spin-favouring Sydney wicket is a dated concept, which is almost mythical in the context of the current day. For the last 10 years, since the beginning of 2009, visiting spinners have taken just 39 wickets on this ground in 11 Tests, at an average of 57.33, getting one wicket every 15.2 overs. There has been one five-wicket haul, but that was in 2010 when Danish Kaneria conceded 151 for his 5 scalps.
The Indians have had experience of this. In early 2012, they lost by an innings and 68 runs and Ravichandran Ashwin bowled 44 wicket-less overs conceding 157. That same innings also saw Virender Sehwag being used for 23 overs, all of them without success, as Australia piled up 659 for 4.
In 2014, Ashwin was in the firing line yet again, conceding 142 runs for his solitary wicket, toiling for 47 overs. That Test also saw Suresh Raina used for 16 overs with returns of none for 53. As the Australians went for quick runs in the second innings, Ashwin did capture 4 wickets, but his 19 overs cost 105.
In the light of this, picking two spinners is rather surprising. Especially given, once again, Kuldeep has not played any red-ball cricket on this tour.
The Australian spinners have not done much better. In the last 10 years and 11 Tests in this venue, they have also picked up just 39 wickets, although at a slightly better average of 46.69, success coming every 89.8 balls. 23 of those wickets have been captured by Nathan Lyon in 8 Tests, but they have come at a high cost of 49.86 runs apiece and at a rather steep strike rate of 96.4 balls per wicket.
In fact, only one Test amongst the 11 played in the last 10 years has had something for the spinners. And that was a scintillating thriller.
That was in 2010, when Pakistan visited. 19 of the first 20 wickets fell to pacemen. But the second innings was a different story. Kaneria took 5 for 151, as Australia combated a 206-run deficit to score 381. And then Nathan Hauritz captured 5 for 53 as Pakistan were 139 all out chasing 176 to win.
But, in general, spinners have had a very bad time on this ground since 2009.
The pacemen have done a lot better. Their 215 wickets in the last 10 years have come at an average of 34 apiece.
Bowlers at Sydney during the last 10 years
Having two spinners operating in such circumstances is probably handy if the bowlers are sent on a leather hunt, and the team has to spend a long, long time on the field. Otherwise, however, it seems to jar with a three-pacemen strategy that has been so successful in recent times.
The attack employed by India in the last few Test matches was relentless and probing assault by a battery of high quality pacers, with enough depth to take turns so that there was no respite for the batsmen. With spin coming up as first change and with another spinner thereafter, that method of attack will no longer be in vogue.
Once again, one hopes that this is not a strategy that will go on to prevent India from closing out this series in Australia for the first time. They have come tantalisingly close.
But, it does seem to be a strange bit of selection.