Rahane brings on Ashwin early
The game-defining moment came in the 11th over of the first innings with Ajinkya Rahane’s move and Ravichandran Ashwin’s stirring response. It showed Rahane had nailed two things right: The reading of the conditions and his respect for Ashwin’s skills. For a team that has bungled on reading the pitch in the past (hark back to Lord’s 2018 when rain meant the toss and team-announcement was pushed to Day 2 and they still went with two spinners), this was refreshing. The faith in Ashwin was also no less significant. The off-spinner might be the joint fastest to 350 Test wickets but by his own admission, he has felt “hurt” with questions over his overseas performances. Rahane’s moves cracked both puzzles in a swoop.
Ashwin, of course, was more than ready to have a go. Speculation over his commitment in England in 2018 had really hurt him. “I am a proper street dog. If you push me down, shoot me, kill me with a knife, stab me, I will still wake up for a fight,” he had told Cricbuzz earlier this year. He is a man with wide interests beyond the game who in the recent past, seems to have reinvented himself as a brand in the Tamil-speaking world with his YouTube shows. Above everything else, though, he is a spinner who takes great pride in his art; he had meticulously prepared for this series, from chalking out plans for individual batsmen to the amount of over-spin needed on his deliveries. He stubbed out Australia’s counter-attacking plans by taking out Matthew Wade before delivering the sucker punch by dismissing Steve Smith. From then on, Australia were on the back foot.
Leaders on the field
Rahane was the captain who led from the front, but India had many leaders on the field in the second Test. Ashwin was prominent among them. From being the speaker-in-chief during a team huddle to taking debutant Mohammed Siraj under his wings, the senior offie was always involved. During Australia’s second innings on the third day, as Siraj was brought back for a new spell, Ashwin had a lengthy conversation with the debutant. Siraj slanted across a length ball to Travis Head and the latter nicked it to second slip, playing away from his body. It felt like Ashwin had pre-empted it. Siraj finished the match with five wickets, more than making up for Umesh Yadav’s absence in the second innings. Shastri attributed the youngster’s success to his bowling discipline.
Pujara wears Aussies down
After the match, Ashwin posted a group photo on Twitter. It featured Jadeja, Umesh, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rahane and Jasprit Bumrah alongside him. “When your backs are up against the wall, lean back and enjoy the support of the wall!! Well done to the entire team and what a win that was,” said the post, with special mention to Siraj, Shubman Gill and the members in the group photo. Pujara scored 17 and 3 in this Test. Then again, the two hours that he soaked up in the first innings, especially on the second morning, when an overcast sky and lively pitch made batting conditions very difficult, were significant. Pujara wore down the bowlers. Then, Rahane took over.
Jadeja rises to the challenge, literally
Sanjay Manjrekar had called him a ‘bits-and-pieces cricketer’. That was during the World Cup in England last year. Coming into the Melbourne Test, Ravindra Jadeja had a long-form batting average of 53.57 over the last two-and-a-half years. The Indian team management knew his quality as a batsman and included him as Virat Kohli’s replacement. And if there was any doubt about Jadeja’s ability to handle the short ball in Australia, the left-hander quelled it at the stroke of tea on the second day. Mitchell Starc made one rear off a length and Jadeja, on his toes, dropped it down almost at his feet. It was a fascinating piece of cricket; something any top-order batsman would have been proud of. Jadeja’s 57 and his 121-run partnership with Rahane took the game away from the hosts.
Pant, beyond the numbers
On the second day, with India on 116/4 and the game delicately poised, former Australia fast bowler Merv Hughes was asked on the ABC Grandstand commentary about which team had the edge at that point. “Australia are one wicket away from a commanding position, India are 25 minutes away from a commanding position,” Hughes replied. The game indeed started to change in the next half an hour, after the drinks break to be precise. Rishabh Pant took on Australia’s best bowler on the day, Pat Cummins, collecting back-to-back twos and a couple of fours. It wrested the initiative for India. At the post-match press conference, the India head coach Ravi Shastri spoke about the value of Pant’s cameo, going beyond the arid numbers – 29 off 40 balls. Behind the stumps, Pant was a livewire, belting out advice to the bowlers and occasionally getting under the skin of Aussie batsmen, especially Wade.