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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

After rain, a (mini) deluge: Aussie top order finds some semblance of form on a benign surface

Will Pucovski impressed with a half-century on debut, Marnus Labuschagne shone with his fluency, and Steve Smith cast away doubts over his form with a breezy unconquered 31. The trio compensated for the early loss of the returning David Warner to pile 166 runs for the loss of two wickets on a rain-shortened day.

Written by Sandip G | Sydney | Updated: January 7, 2021 8:30:52 pm
ind vs ausWill Pucovski and Marnus Labuschagne in action on Day 1 (AP)

After the rain relented, the clouds dispelled and the sun began to hammer down, Australia produced their most assertive batting performance of the series. Debutant Will Pucovski impressed with a half-century on debut, Marnus Labuschagne shone with his fluency, and Steve Smith cast away doubts over his form with a breezy unconquered 31. The trio compensated for the early loss of the returning David Warner to pile 166 runs for the loss of two wickets on a rain-shortened day in Sydney.

Just to put the improvement in perspective, Australia were eight down when they reached the same score in the first innings in Melbourne; in the second, they had lost seven wickets; in Adelaide they had eight wickets back in the pavilion by this stage. At the heart of the comeback was a combination of factors — a more purposeful approach, a strip without pace and bounce, unimaginative Indian bowling, and Rishabh Pant dropping a pair of straightforward catches when the match was still in India’s firm grip.

But take nothing away from the purposefulness of the Aussie batsmen, starting with the incredibly serene Pucovski. The 22-year-old shed little nerves as he resolutely blunted the new-ball onslaught. Like most Australian openers of the past, he possesses a pronounced shuffle across the crease than a prominent front-foot stride. But he doesn’t overcommit to the backfoot, maintains a balanced posture, and doesn’t needlessly lunge forward. How Australia has missed an opener of his assuredness in defence! Later, as his innings progressed, Pucovski demonstrated his crisp stroke-play. A backfoot punch off Navdeep Saini’s first ball in Test cricket was delightful, emphatic was the follow-up pull shot that brought up his half-century. Only a couple of short balls that reached shoulder-height troubled him.

One from Siraj brushed his gloves, after hurrying him into a belated attempt at pulling, and lobbed in the air. But Pant misjudged and eventually let the ball bobble out of his gloves. Considering his well-storied vulnerability against short-pitched bowling, it was baffling why India resorted to the strategy only in bits and fits. As recent as last month had Kartik Tyagi pinged Pucovski on the helmet, concussing and delaying his Test debut.

The reprieve came three overs after Ravichandran Ashwin had induced an outside edge, that thudded out of Pant’s cast-iron left glove. The curly-haired Victorian, thereafter, marched to his half-century, before becoming Saini’s first wicket in Tests, when he swiped across his sharp in-swinger. A rare burst of exuberance undid him, but Australia would not quibble. They seem to have unearthed a genuine long-term, old-fashioned opener.

The wicket was the last drop of relief India enjoyed on a tiresome day, as Labuschagne laid siege and Smith dusted up some of his characteristic splendour to combine an undefeated 60-run partnership that dragged the game away from the visitors. For much of their stay, they hardly looked like being defeated either.

Labuschagne masterfully neutralised Ashwin by either going deep into the crease and wristing him on the legside, undaunted by the prowling fielders, or stretching fully forward to defend. He pushed Ashwin’s length back, and would vociferously cut anything with a hint of room. Later in the day, he sashayed down the surface and lofted the off-spinner over mid-on and once unfurled a dexterous paddle sweep. Ashwin winced; it was a rare off-day for him this series.

Not that he bowled ordinarily, but Australians nullified him meticulously. Also, a considerably slower and less bouncy surface meant that he could not extract disconcerting lift like he had purchased in Melbourne. Bounce has been Ashwin’s biggest weapon this series, and without it, he seemed overstrung. Impatience tore into him, and he fiddled around with fields and strategies. For instance, he bowled three balls from round the stumps to Labuschagne, but as soon as he cut the third ball for a boundary, reverted to the conventional line of attack. Only in the previous innings had he dismissed him, caught at slip, from round the stumps to a ball pushed across him.

Ashwin resorted to his old friends, flight and dip. But Smith met the challenge head-on. He stepped out nonchalantly at his nemesis this series and smothered the spin like subcontinental batsmen of yore. His first boundary off Ashwin was classical stuff. Smith lashed out at a flighted ball and whipped it through mid-wicket with nonchalant ease. Much like the Smith of old. His wrist-flex at the exact moment when wood met leather had Oriental precision coated all over it. He waltzed out again next over to Ashwin, this time smearing him through mid-on. Ashwin would occasionally slither one on Smith’s legs, hoping that he would glance a catch to leg- slip, but Smith was not falling for the bait this time around. He was bent on playing such deliveries straighter than finer, would hang on the backfoot, ride the bounce and tuck it towards midwicket.

With Ashwin neutered, half of Australia’s troubles floated away like the clouds on the evening sky. For fast bowlers struggled to coerce anything from the benign surface. There was no movement, pace or bounce to trouble batsmen. Jasprit Bumrah unfurled a quick, missile-like full ball at Smith, hoping to beat his bat and nail him in front. But Smith, in buccaneering mood, would pat the ball back past him to the fence. Saini attempted the same ploy, only for Smith to pick a brace of boundaries without breaking a sweat. He motored along to 26 off 30 balls, before he pulled down the shutters as dusk and stumps approached.

It was a little over half a day’s toil for the Indian bowlers —just 55 overs — but they looked as if they had laboured two full days on the field. On the contrary, Smith and Labuschagne dragged themselves reluctantly off the ground at close of play. It was Australia’s most assertive batting display of this series.

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