On his return to Test cricket, Rohit Sharma can’t say he was not forewarned. A ball ago only had his slog-sweep nearly imperilled him, debutant Marcus Harris lacking that little boundary-juggling trick that would have seen him pull off a stunner. But Sharma, as is his wont, didn’t heed, trusted his slog-sweeping intent as much as the luck smiling on him, and attempted a repeat. Only that he had telegraphed his intention a trifle too early, and Nathan Lyon had the awareness to pull the length back a bit. Sharma ended up lolling the ball to Harris, a promising, possible career-changing knock, self-destroyed.
At any juncture in a game, such self-imposed calamity is deplorable. Not least when you are on a comeback trail, probably the last thread of hope to salvage a Test career. Here India were rebuilding after a horrific start, insidiously grasping the contest away from Australia, and then the brain-freeze. Or rather a false sense of security, heightened perhaps by a flurry of glorious strokes, including a pulled six and lofted drive off Pat Cummins.
Why Finch stood at short 3rd slip wearing a helmet?
Aaron Finch was meant to be at third slip for the fast bowlers but at one stage for Cheteshwar Pujara he stood very close, as if he was standing for a gentle medium pacer. He had his pads on and a helmet and the commentators chuckled about the presence of two wicket-keepers, but it was a very clever tactic. It was to target Pujara’s soft hands, a tribute to the batsman’s skill in some ways. Pujara has the tendency to defend with soft hands, the arms almost collapse and the hands hold the bat so gingerly to ensure the ball doesn’t fly through to palms in the cordon. Though he is a defensive batsman, Pujara doesn’t always leave balls – at least, he doesn’t leave as much as say M Vijay used to do in his pomp. Pujara likes to feel the bat on ball as they say, preferring to defend rather than leave. Considering all that, it made sense for Australia to have this short slip. In the post-lunch session when Australia tried this zig-zag slip cordon, Finch kept moving from backward short-leg when Nathan Lyon was bowling, to a very short, almost silly, third slip when the quicks had the ball in hand. The reason he needed a helmet, and also the ‘close-in fielders’ pads, at third slip was because Finch needed protection. What if Pujara opted to drive to one of Australia’s 145-plus pacer and ball flew to third slip.
But he was not alone in indiscretion. He had seen the entire top order gifting wickets, in almost identical fashion- driving/slashing away from the body with hard hands and static feet. It put the Indians in all-too-familiar peril at 86/5 before Cheteshwar Pujara dug in, along with the lower order, to score a memorable 123 as India made a comeback to be 250/9 at stumps.
The least pardonable shot among the top order was from KL Rahul, for he has been dismissed several times in this manner this year, driving too early in his innings without the required adjustments. It’s baffling because he’s a terrific driver of the ball, only that he looks to play that shot too early in his innings without the necessary head-feet alignment. Here, he was too late with the downswing of the bat, making it look like a flash than a drive.
Murali Vijay was the next, and like Rohit he too had been warned of the lurking danger of the stroke in the previous over. But he couldn’t resist his inner voice, making one wonder whatever happened to the worldly-wise Vijay that toured here four years ago. Mistake. And one that Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, the captain and his deputy, repeated. One can call it instinct — a seemingly fuller delivery outside off-stump on a strip with negligible assistance to the seamers, unlike in England – or the urge to impose themselves early on in the series. It could be called, respectfully, imprudent.
But the drive-happy batsmen discounted two aspects of facing the new ball in Australia in the first session, especially in Adelaide. First, the seam movement, as, according to CricViz, seamers enjoy an average of 0.81° of swing and 1.0° of seam movement at Adelaide, higher figures than any other Australian ground, besides Hobart (0.87° and 1.2°). Secondly, the flatter machine-stitched seam of Kookaburra balls does seam around, and the Australians, especially Josh Hazlewood, are quite proficient at that. The movement off the seam can be so late, and subtle, that it seduces the batsmen into thinking that it wouldn’t deviate. But it does. One can do precious little if one has to play the ball, and an error in judgement can be pardoned, but in all of these instances, they had no business interfering in the path of the ball.
Moreover, the seaming around stops after the stitch deteriorates, probably after 20 overs. The template was straightforward, tried and tested: see out the new ball and feast on the bowling. But the Indian batsmen wouldn’t listen to reason, they were in a tearing hurry. Mitchell Starc observed much the same in the press conference. “It’s (the pitch) what we call a new-ball wicket. After the first 15-20 overs, it flattened out. In that way we were fortunate to get some of the Indian batsmen out early, playing loose shots.”
Though Australian bowlers don’t move the ball as precociously as their English counterparts in England, they do it at a greater pace. While in England, Indian batsmen were facing James Anderson and Co. in the 130-140 kmph range, here they were facing genuinely fast 150kmph-types, like Starc and Cummins. They still got some time to make the requisite adjustments against the Englishmen, whether to reach the pitch of the ball and drive or defend or leave the ball, but when they’re are facing someone so quick, their instinct occasionally made them do things they shouldn’t have. For pace causes indecision.
But it’s not the first time Indian batsmen have folded up in such a self-implosive manner in the first innings of an away overseas. In Birmingham, on a not-so-devious surface, they were 3/59 in 16 overs and then 5/100 inside 30 overs. In Cape Town, they lost seven wickets before crossing 100 runs. It required an insuperable Kohli hundred in Birmingham while Hardik Pandya’s smash-and-grab 93 arrested an abject capitulation. In Adelaide, it required Pujara, who chalked a blueprint of how to bat in such situations.
As much as the Indian batsmen were culpable, the Australian bowlers had done their homework, homing in on the fuller-length vulnerability of some of the Indian batsmen. “We got the wickets the way we thought we might get the wickets. We’ve bowled a fuller length and some bouncers to get them back in the crease,” Australia’s bowling coach David Saker told the Seven Network.