An engrossing Test match is unfolding at the Adelaide Oval with India and Australia wrestling for control, trading punches and counterpunches. For most of the day, India had their noses in front, fuelled by a hostile and collective bowling effort, before Tim Paine’s valiant counterattack rekindled Australia’s hopes.
When India were bowled out for 244, they would have merrily welcomed a first-innings lead of 53 runs. But having stalled Australia to 111/7, they would rue not achieving a lead of match-defining propositions on a progressively slow surface. That they lost one of their openers, Prithvi Shaw at the fag end of the day would compound their frustration.
But they could reflect and rejoice after an exemplary bowling performance, wherein every cog of the machinery performed smoothly and efficiently, when it hardly jarred or squeaked. Better, on a surface that was not particularly a batsman’s graveyard. Apart from a bit of indifferent bounce, nothing abetted them. It was plain hard work, planning, smarts and persistence.
The hallmark of this Indian bowling quartet is its adaptability and quick thinking, besides the supreme awareness of strengths. They harbour no preconceived notions or rigid tactics. They are barely delusional, but practical and hands-on. They are driven and individualistic, but work within the framework of collectivism.
So after realising that it was not a surface wherein edges would fly off the surface or they could bounce batsmen out, they changed their line of attack from sixth stump to off-stump or thereabouts. Rewards winked in instantly.
Both openers, Matthew Wade and Joe Burns, were nailed in front of the stumps by the immaculate Jasprit Bumrah. Wade was undone by the inward angle, rather than seam movement, of a fast delivery that caught him on the move. Burns, in wretched form, reacted sluggishly to a fiendish yorker that tailed in late. In the T20s, Bumrah had looked rusty, but here he was steaming in fluidly, with the ball coming out of his palms like in a dream.
The pressure was relentless, every delivery so hot that it seemed to burn the bat at the faintest contact. Bumrah was adeptly supported by Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, scarcely bestowing an outlet to release the pressure. Shami found seam movement, sufficient than extravagant; he coerced bounce of a hard length. He ended up wicketless, but bowled as well as any Indian bowler on the day. Yadav was sharp and disciplined, rarely erring on the short side as had been his nature in the past, and was rewarded with three wickets.
But with equal measures of fortune and stubbornness, Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne seemed to be quelling the storm and frustrating India’s bowlers. Labuschagne was dropped three times (he was spilled once more later), while Smith’s outside edge was beaten multiple times. A familiar fightback seemed on the cards before Ravichandran Ashwin strolled in to pile on more misery, slicing through the middle order with the wickets of Smith, Travis Head and Cameron Green in what could be his most definitive performance overseas.
There is enough proof that his fourth trip to Australia could be his most productive yet. On the 2018 tour, he did bowl sumptuously in Adelaide, only for an injury to truncate his ambitions. In fairness, Adelaide is the perfect venue for a finger-spinner to start the series. The surface does tend to break up, the cross-wind aids drift and the bounce is just adequate to trouble batsmen.
Irrespective of the favourable conditions, Ashwin’s craft has evolved to a state wherein he could harness the elements to suit him. In Australia, he knew his biggest ally would be overspin. He had watched enough of Nathan Lyon to polish that facet of the game.
So he second-guessed that Smith would look to play with the bounce and hang back unless it is too full. So to a delivery that he would have lunged forth in the subcontinent, Smith dropped to the backfoot. He anticipated that the ball would bounce and turn into him. But the particular delivery only bounced and did not turn. It rather skidded on to kiss the edge. Ashwin’s animated celebrations showed that the dismissal was pre-planned.
Head’s wicket stemmed from his clever modulation of pace. He played a nothing shot to a slower, tossed-up ball and gifted the easiest of return catches. Green, hitherto fluent, was undone by the extra bounce he generated. The three distinct methods of dismissals only burnish the genius of Ashwin. He also has supreme confidence in his ability, is unflappable under fire, can pick holes in a batsman’s technique, and vary pace and trajectory according to conditions and circumstances. In short, it’s time to appreciate Ashwin as a supreme force in overseas conditions.
It rings true for Yadav too. Often in the past, his lengths have alternated between too full and too short, the line erratic too. Here, he did what he does well in India, that is to attack the stumps on a good length. His pace and fractional movement were enough to trouble batsmen. So it did the chancy Labuschagne, three shy of a dogged half-century. In the same over, he nabbed Pat Cummins with a lifter. Australia were tottering at 111/7, before Paine engineered a remarkable rescue act.
Just when India seemed in control, Paine gave Australia a toe-hold into the match with a busy 73, the most fluent any batsman has looked on this surface. He added 80 runs with the last three, and Shaw’s early departure gave Australia a bit of cheer in the end. Keeping up with the theme of the dilly-dallying contest, it was inevitable that Australia fought back, even if India would be the happier side after the second day.
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