An hour before tea, a slow-burning Test began to gather fire. The contest – whose control was constantly exchanging hands until then – took a decisive swing in the hosts’ favour, as India lost wickets in a heap and the Australians piled on runs at a brisk clip. From a rosy 195/4, India were dismissed for a gloomy 244 all out, and to a deficit of 94 runs. Australia added 103 more with the loss of just their openers. Their lead of 197 has already acquired a match-defining proposition, what with the strip progressively deteriorating.
The precipitant of India’s collapse was Pat Cummins, who disarms batsmen first with his smile and then devastates them with his lethal craft, a bowler who fumes with pace but also shows a divine mastery of seam movement and aggressive lines. Pace, bounce, subtlety of movement, a sharp, strong and flexible mind are all his virtues, but the most glowing of all must be his capacity to produce a wicket when batsmen are on top. His ability to not give up, even when conditions are harsh.
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) January 9, 2021
Like when he devoured Shubman Gill on the second day, with the young Indian opener seemingly in utter control. And like when he consumed Cheteshwar Pujara, who looked wedded to the crease for a lifetime. Cummins was armed with the second new ball, but Pujara had seldom looked frazzled in what was his slowest half-century. His 176 balls of defiance and denial, and each patiently eked-out run, was taking the sap out of the opposition players’ legs and painstakingly laying the foundation of a solid first-innings total. From a generation demanding instant gratification, his dourness might invite censure, but this was a master batsman sticking to his strengths and doing his best to put his team in a secure position.
More than any other side, Australia know the Pujara effect. Two years ago, his immovability cost them the series. Streaks of restlessness were creeping in, with even the chatty Marnus Labuschagne lost for energy and sound. The sun-beaten strip seemed to distil every ball of its venom.
And then Cummins bounded in, with unflagging energy and unwavering smile. Realising that the good-length ball was not quite seaming — he anyway is not an expansive mover of the ball — he resorted to short-pitched bowling. Straightaway, he hurried Rishabh Pant into a pull stroke, and the wicketkeeper-batsman was beaten for pace and struck flush on the unprotected left elbow. He grimaced in pain, and could not take up his duties behind the stumps when Australia’s second innings came about. Rattled, Pant was half the man he was before getting struck and eventually surrendered sheepishly to Josh Hazlewood.
It was Pujara’s turn next. He was rapped viciously on the upper arm, the bat shivering in his hand at the impact of the hit. Cummins, after all, is no stranger to breaking bones. In Adelaide, he had shattered Mohammed Shami’s arm; during the 2019 World Cup, he broke Shaun Marsh’s arm in the nets. Growing up in the Sydney suburb of Penrith, parents of rival batsmen used to request him to bowl slower when their kids were batting. Cummins would agree, but in the heat of the moment, he would forget to keep his word. “I didn’t mean to but every year I would actually have batsmen on the ground rolling in pain,” he once told cricketaustralia.com.au. There was another match, wherein the bails had to be retrieved from the fence after he bowled a batsman with raw pace.
Speed, to him, is an instinct. He combines it with smarts. Cummins knew he needed something more to deceive Pujara. So he changed to a more short-of-length plan, coaxing him to come forward gradually and defend on the front foot. Then he pushed in the effort ball, that pitched short of length, but exploded like a hand grenade into the shoulder of the bat (plus a part of the glove), already level with his chest. Pujara took the bottom hand off the handle, but it was too late to prevent contact. The fort breached, India imploded.
As Cummins wheeled away in celebration, Pujara looked down suspiciously at the surface once more. But the real culprit was the man whose fast, explosive delivery in the fourth-stump channel had found the edge. In Cummins, Pujara had found his true bête noire. Their encounters this series read: 129 balls, 19 runs, 4 wickets. Cummins has clear one-upmanship over India’s defensive rock. “The best ball I have faced this series,” Pujara would later say.
In the morning, Cummins had out-thought India’s hero in Melbourne, Ajinkya Rahane, with an equally shrewd piece of bowling. Rahane was softened up with a spate of short balls at his body before he was caught unawares with a back-of-a-length ball that jagged back sharply into him. Rahane shaped up for a dab through the vacant slip cordon but was oblivious to seam movement. The ball cramped him for room and took the bottom edge onto the stumps.
The short-ball strategy directly fetched Australia just the wicket of No. 9 Navdeep Saini, but it was central to their third-day dominance. It was not a quick enough surface to extract frightening bounce at heightened pace. It certainly was not a pitch wherein two batsmen would end up nursing sore thumb and elbow. But the slowness of the surface made short-pitched bowling all the more difficult to handle, because batsmen had a fraction more time to think than they would have on a quicker surface. This was enough to infuse dilemma and confusion.
Run out! Cummins spots up Labuschagne and Ashwin’s heading back!
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) January 9, 2021
It was not just short-pitched bowling, but the fear of short-pitched bowling that spooked India’s batsmen, especially the lower order. Mohammed Siraj knelt on the ground even before Mitchell Starc’s short ball had landed.
The Aussie pacemen shuffled the lengths, changed trajectories and sustained the hostility. Pujara crawled not because he was averse to runs, but because Cummins and Co. hardly gifted him a freebie. Rahane perished manufacturing a stroke and some of the kamikaze running between the wickets could be attributed to the choking of run-scoring outlets.
Indian bowlers should have taken lessons from Cummins and friends. They could not on Saturday evening, as Labuschagne and Steve Smith tucked into some insipid bowling. In short, India need a Cummins, he of an ever-smiling visage, twinkling eyes and unrelenting hostility, the man who set the slow-burning day on fire.
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