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IT’S NOT so much a comfort as it is a release shot for Steve Smith against off-spin. When he jumps out of the crease, slightly across his stumps and flicks the off-break towards mid-wicket or mid-on. And he’d already played it on five occasions at the Maharashtra Cricket Association (MCA) Stadium on Thursday by the time he decided to do it once more to R Ashwin — fatally, as it would turn out. For, Ashwin had got this particular off-break to drift in the air to drag it wider. He had also got it to dip on the right-hander so as to ensure that Smith wasn’t to the pitch of the ball when he closed the face of his bat. It meant the bat turned awkwardly and tamely travelled in the air straight into Virat Kohli’s longing hands at mid-wicket. Just like that, Australia had lost their captain to his trademark shot on a pitch that was already showing all the stereotypical attributes that visiting teams imagine in their worst nightmares.
The first ball of spin, which incidentally came in only the second over bowled by Ashwin, had turned like Smith had dreaded it would. And the incredibly hot sun — which ensured only around 7000 showed up for Pune’s first tryst with Test cricket — was only baking the already dried up pitch even more. To make matters worse, Matt Renshaw had retired ill to answer an uncontrollable call of nature, or as he would put it, “when you have to go to the toilet, you have to go to the toilet”.
The Australians have gone on about their elaborate preparatory camp in Dubai before they landed in India. To the extent that they’ve claimed this to be the best-prepared team from Down Under to visit these parts. In addition to scuffing up wickets and sprinkling dust on areas where the spinners generally land the ball, they also used plastic chairs around batsmen to recreate the claustrophobia-inducing close-in fields. But what they couldn’t recreate was facing R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on an actual rank turner. And when faced with the real deal, they were reintroduced to the old devils as the Indian spinners reinforced their old fears. Umesh Yadav’s four-wicket haul also showed another threat one-eyed visiting batsmen, with their focus solely on spin, often get blindsided by: reverse-swing. In the end, it took Mitchell Starc’s late cameo, an unbeaten 57 off 58 balls, to save Australia the blushes as they ended Day One on 256 for 9.
A quote from Smith in an interview to Cricinfo before he left Australia probably sums up the Australian psyche towards playing spin in India perfectly.
“I think we’ve been guilty in the past of saying ‘a ball’s going to have your name on it, so get them before one gets you’. To be honest with you, it’s rubbish,” he’d said.
That’s exactly the aspect of their batting, it’s learnt, they had practised ad nauseam in Dubai. So obsessed were they on fortifying their defence that even Glenn Maxwell spent two hours in the nets without playing a single outlandish shot. To their credit, all top-five Australian batsmen on Thursday survived for more than 45 balls. And they did show decent skills in tackling the rather treacherous conditions. There were balls constantly ripping past their outside edges and some flying off a length and hitting them on the arm. But they did show enough gumption to hang in there with the opening partnership putting on 82 before both openers exited the field, one holding his head, the other his tummy. Warner, for one, didn’t play a sweep shot till he’d faced 50 balls while Renshaw employed a Damien Martyn-esque technique of hanging back and softening his grip. He was also keen on taking on Jadeja and hit the ball with no half-measures over the on-side. But still, the Australian batsmen still looked like there was a ball with their name on it just around the corner. And they weren’t wrong too often either.
Both Peter Handscomb and Mitchell Marsh fell to the customary Jadeja trap, where he rips one across the batsman before pushing the arm-ball flatter and trapping him in front. Ashwin, on the other hand, would keep pegging away from around the wicket to get the left-hander so used to playing at the ball that he would still get sucked into doing the same to an off-break pitching on leg from over the wicket. Like Renshaw did after he came back to bat, looking a lot relieved, and scored 68, the highest-score of the day. Shaun Marsh, meanwhile, fell to a loose sweep shot to Jayant, guilty of deciding to play the shot on line rather than length. That the Aussies don’t use their wrists to a great extent against spin also means that they are unable to tuck the ball into the square regions on either side of the wicket to pick up crucial runs and also rotate the strike.
And if anyone had to stand up and make sure that Aussie spirits weren’t spun in to the ground on the opening day it was their captain, considering he’s their best player of spin. Smith has also been working on trying to eliminate his penchant to get lbw while facing left-arm spin. And he was successful in not getting beaten on the inside of his bat even once against Jadeja, who kept nagging away at that very weakness. Then, he ended up falling prey to his own weapon of choice on a day an Australian team that had done their homework for a change still ended in detention.