An ensemble cast comprising two debutants, two highly-skilled bowlers at the peak of their prowess, and an inspired captain combined to produce a blockbuster first day for India in the Boxing Day Test. It was a bright day in Melbourne when Ajinkya Rahane’s leadership felt like a breath of fresh air, when Jasprit Bumrah bowled like the wind in the morning, Mohammad Siraj whipped up a storm, and Ravichandran Ashwin blew like a calm afternoon breeze. And at the fag end, came Shubman Gill, like a ripple of evening thunder.
Resultantly, Australia reeled under the weather, mustering only 195 runs on a placid surface after choosing to bat, before India ended the day at 36/1. The score at stumps was the only reminder of that dreadful afternoon in Adelaide, as India demonstrated that they have the skills as well as the will to turn adversity around. If the scars of Adelaide remained, they did well to conceal it. Rather, they were a totally transformed bunch, bustling with energy and purpose and bounding with relish and resolve.
The foremost of Rahane’s challenges was to ensure that the team’s morale remained unbroken, their spirit undiminished. Often, teams trying to wage a comeback tend to over-exert, over-try, and over-complicate matters. Lack of instant results could demoralise and eventually, wither them. Rahane ensured that his team didn’t flinch, even when rewards were not forthcoming. He seized the moments and ensured that the team kept their poise and composure. Like himself.
If Virat Kohli feeds of the inner fire, Rahane derives strength from his inner ice. Far from being burdened, captaincy seemed to have liberated him of the inner torments. There was a decisiveness about him and the moves he made.
A classic example of his non-plussed captaincy was when Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne were engineering a comeback after finding themselves in each other’s company at 38/3. Weathering the initial storm, the two were looking to accelerate, when Rahane recommissioned Bumrah. A reactive captain would have sought defensive measures, like introducing Ravindra Jadeja or setting run-stopping fields. Here, Rahane counterattacked Australia’s counter. Head struck Bumrah for a brace of boundaries off fuller deliveries, which in the end seemed like an elaborate scheme. The pacer then pushed the left-hander onto the backfoot with a mixture of short and short-of-length deliveries, before he bowled one fuller and seaming away from Head, who prodded instinctively at the ball with his feet crease-tied. An edge was all but unavoidable.
The final wall of resistance was breached, and Australia fell apart, not in a heap but brick by other. Central to that was India’s planning and the supreme execution of their plans. Be it the bowling changes or leg-side traps, every plan bore the designed fruits. The dismissals of Steve Smith and his protege Labuschagne stood out, for both the enormity of the wickets as well as the rationale behind the tactics.
Both are leg-side virtuosos. So most captains and bowlers look to block their leg-side run-scoring avenues and overcompensate by bowling outside the off-stump.
Two balls that pitched in very similar positions – two very different results!
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) December 26, 2020
But sometimes, batsmen are most vulnerable playing the instinctive strokes. Both Smith and Labuschagne could not resist the leg-side glide, and the fielders were perfectly stationed to gobble up the ensuing catches. Smith was caught at leg-gully and Labuschagne at backward square-leg. In both cases, the silly mid-on played a bit-part in the scene. They were stationed straighter than usual, forcing the batsmen to play more across the line and with less control.
Smith seemed hypnotised by the magnificent curve Ashwin conjured throughout what would arguably be his best day in Australia. It was a spell out of the off-spinner’s dreams, when everything was coming out perfectly from his fingers – from the amount of drift, dip, pace and spin. Perfect to the tiniest molecule. The run-up was rhythmic and smooth, the release free and fluent, and the ball ever so obedient to the orders of its master. Some would spin and bounce, some would just bounce, some would just spin. The uncertainty was harrowing for Australia’s batsmen.
As was Siraj, whose skills Rahane masterfully harnessed. In the lead-up to tea, he was bowling intensely but without luck. Each time he beat the edge or an edge fell short, Siraj would throw his hands in the air. But Rahane would walk up to him and reassure him. He even obliged him with a referral that looked far from straightforward (and once politely refused another request from Siraj). Most importantly, the skipper kept his faith in the debutant. And just before tea, he dismissed Labuschangne.
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) December 26, 2020
Buoyed, Siraj increased his pace and purchased reverse swing, not massive like in the subcontinent but just enough to trouble the batsmen. Eventually, Cameron Green missed one and was pinned in front of the wicket, ending another brief period of resistance that didn’t cost too many runs but ate up close to 12 overs. Here again, Rahane would have been tempted to replace Siraj with Umesh Yadav or Bumrah to polish off Australia’s lower order, but that would have been cruel to Siraj who was bowling hostilely as well as well as tirelessly.
But after Tim Paine departed, to yet another Ashwin ball that exploded like a hand grenade off the surface, Bumrah was reintroduced. He did the needful with the wickets of Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon (after a freewheeling cameo), before Ravindra Jadeja denied him a five-for by packing Pat Cummins. With more fortune in his first spell, wherein he repeatedly beat the openers but had only the scalp of Joe Burns to show, Bumrah would certainly have returned with a more glittering war-chest than 4/56.
Fittingly, Rahane led the team off to the dressing room with a typically restrained smile. Half-smile, if there ever was one. But it could have easily turned into a grimace had India lost more wickets than Mayank Agarwal. For this, he has to thank the free-stroking Gill, who in his 28 not out of 38 balls oozed ample signs that he’s equipped to deal with the best of seamers in the world. The pull strokes off Starc were brutal; imperious was he when he stepped out and drove Lyon against the turn through mid-off. Though he was once grassed, a rare case of indiscretion, Gill showed excellent defensive technique to ensure that India didn’t suffer further damage.
The Test is still a long way from taking a decisive turn, but India’s steely show on the first day offers strands of reassurance that Adelaide was just an aberration, and that they have deep reservoirs of resilience and fight. And no one illustrated those virtues like Rahane.