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THE LAST time India suffered a collapse as shambolic as the one here, the then coach wanted the entire team to be “dumped into the Pacific”. India had lost 7/18 at Christchurch back in February 1990 against the swing and seam of Richard Hadlee and Danny Morrison. At the MCA Stadium in Pune on Friday, it was left-arm spinner Stephen O’Keefe who orchestrated what now is their worst-ever slide, losing seven wickets for 11 runs in 48 balls.
Luckily, India don’t quite have someone as emotional as Bishan Singh Bedi at the helm now. Anil Kumble is, let’s say, a slightly more reasonable coach. But even he couldn’t help himself but take a little dig at KL Rahul, who in many ways lit the spark that eventually engulfed and eviscerated the middle and lower order of India’s batting line-up.
Asked about whether the left shoulder niggle had prompted the opener to go for an untoward hoick off O’Keefe, Kumble quipped, “I think the shot created the injury, not just to him but even to the team.” It was the same over which also saw Ajinkya Rahane and Wriddhiman Saha being snaffled up by O’Keefe during a spell which saw the hosts lose three wickets at the same score. The day ended with Steve Smith leading the charge with an unbeaten 59 to put Australia in pole position with a lead of 298 on a pitch that’s fast-turning into a dustbowl.
While the second day’s play of the first Test will be remembered mainly for the sudden and rapid breakdown of India’s batting, the real damage had come earlier, even if it wasn’t as dramatic. If anything, Rahul and Rahane had resurrected the Indian innings to a great extent from the tatters that Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood had left it in. On a pitch that was custom-designed to help spinners hold centre-stage, the two towering Aussie pacers had put on an exhibition of fearsome fast bowling after all. They had also gotten rid of the three serial run-merchants in the Indian line-up, including Virat Kohli who recorded his first duck in 104 international innings across all formats.
Curator Pandurang Salgaoncar had announced that his Pune pitch would “fly” on the eve of the Test, a statement that invoked a lot of cynical humour while the Australian innings played out, even if Umesh Yadav ended up with four wickets. Salgaoncar had added a rider saying the fast bowler would have to “use his shoulder”. Starc and Hazlewood were doing just that and also bending their backs. And the ball was indeed “flying”.
It did fly to Cheteshwar Pujara when Starc returned for his second spell and produced an unplayable delivery. It pitched short of length and reared at India’s No.3, who could do little but just fend at it awkwardly and offer a catch behind off the glove. It was the kind of delivery you would expect to see on a fiery Gabba surface not on a bone-dry rank-turner in Pune. For the record, the Starc delivery was clocked at 147 kph or 91mph.
It was the exact same speed as the wide and full delivery that had Kohli soon after. It’s been an oft-used strategy to the Indian captain during the home season by the visiting pacers where they try to drag him wide and coax him to play at a full ball. It’s worked only twice, when Ben Stokes had him poking at one in Mohali and also when Neil Wagner used it as a sucker-punch after peppering him with a few short-deliveries in Kanpur. Here, Starc didn’t need to bother about setting him up as Kohli obliged right away and offered a catch to Peter Handscomb at second slip.
This was the quickest and the fieriest spell of fast bowling the Indians had faced all home season. And even if they weren’t shaken, they were stirred at least. It was Hazlewood who had drawn first blood though by removing Murali Vijay, who failed to make a fifty in the first innings of a Test series for the first time in nine. It was a pitch which required a batsman of Vijay’s patience to set up India’s innings. Instead he fell prey to Hazlewood’s greatest weapon, that unerring ability to keep hitting that uncomfortable length and nibble it in and out. It was classic Hazlewood as the ball swerved in the air towards the right-hander before pitching and straightening to inevitably catch the outside-edge. It can’t be easy to be constantly compared and spoken in the same breath as a legend of yore. But while Hazlewood has been likened to Glenn McGrath for most of his career, he’s probably better at this stage of his career than even the former great was. And he could have had Rahul more than once in that spell in the same fashion as he did Vijay.
He’d even earned praise from Kohli after his maiden Test series against India two years ago, where the now Indian captain had hoped that his fast bowlers could acquire the consistency and accuracy that the youngster had exhibited in his first outing on the big stage. Here, he is two years down the line as Australia’s most threatening, even if not as intimidating as Starc, fast bowler. Perhaps it was understandable that Rahul and Rahane would have thought the toughest was behind them once the seamers finished their spells, but it’s then that O’Keefe took over. It was a pitch that had enough purchase to encourage a spinner to let it do all the work for him. And O’Keefe, who’s not known to be a big turner of the ball anyway did just that. He out-bowled the much-fancied Indian spinners by bowling fuller and thereby ensuring that the batsmen were left in a quandary over how much the ball would spin without having the option to leave it.
Rahane’s case it turned just enough to catch his edge while Saha was guilty of expecting the ball to turn enough, which was evident by his decision to play inside the line. This after Rahul, who otherwise played the best innings for India, had attempted to hit O’Keefe out of the ground despite having trouble with his left shoulder. Jayant Yadav and the rest had no chance. Ravindra Jadeja though couldn’t quite replicate O’Keefe’s simple plan and kept bowling too short, which ensured that he beat the bat more than caught the crucial edge. Two straightforward dropped catches didn’t help either as Smith put India’s unbeaten streak in jeopardy.