Updated: March 26, 2017 8:05:05 am
Thirteenth. The final Test match of India’s long and winding home season was turning out to be as the number would have suggested: jinxed. Catastrophe struck early on Saturday when the injured Virat Kohli didn’t pass the fitness test. It was the first time he had missed a Test since becoming a regular in November 2011: a 54-Test match streak in this age of non-stop cricket. And while his omission from the playing XI wasn’t entirely unexpected — he had looked downcast in his pre-match presser on Friday — it didn’t soften the blow. Ajinkya Rahane walked out as India’s 33rd Test skipper and promptly loss the toss.
The first ball of the match, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who came in for Ishant Sharma to exploit the swinging conditions, induced an out-of-form David Warner to edge an out-swinger, but Karun Nair spilled it at third slip. Then, despite Umesh Yadav taking out Matt Renshaw early, India proceeded to dish out utter rubbish.On a rather helpful track, the pacers didn’t get their radar right, and the spinners. Ravindra Jadeja (World No.1) and Ravichandran Ashwin (World No.2), suddenly looked every bit the duo who have bowled 8000-plus Test match deliveries between them in the last six months.
The only one on the field who seemed to justifying his billing — World No.1 — was the Australia captains Steve Smith. Fresh from rubbing noses with the Dalai Lama, Smith batted as serenely as he has in the series. It was as if he was not playing cricket but levitating six inches above the pitch in padmasana with a halo around his head. The Indian attack’s reaction suggested so, for they went prostate.
With the ball swinging, Bhuvneshwar Kumar came from around the wicket looking for outside edge, but Smith, with his exaggerated shuffle would easily flick him towards the leg-side. From the other end, Umesh Yadav went wide, Smith crunched him for boundaries through the off-side.Rahane summoned his leading spinners, but they looked jaded. When Ashwin tossed up he was lofted, when he ping it short he was punched off the back foot. Before long, Smith had brought up his fifty and was outscoring Warner 2:1.
Sometimes it seems Smith’s fidgetiness is a subterfuge. It leads the bowler into believing he is bowling at a nervous batsman. But once the bowler realises it’s a trap, he panics. It appears have been the case with the Indians in this series. To break the spell, even Kohli came onto the ground carrying advice in the garb of water, but to no avail. Smith ended the first session with a lovely drive off Kuldeep Yadav as Australia, having made 131/1 in 31 overs, looked set for an imposing first innings total.
But while Smith continued in that zone post lunch, others, aside of Matthew Wade, fell to either poor shot selection or the guiles of Kuldeep Yadav. Only Smith and Wade looked in control against the chinaman bowler, picking him off the hand than trying to read him off the pitch. It was, in fact, with a delectable glance to the fine leg boundary off the young spinner that Smith brought up his century. He took off his helmet and pointed his bat towards the Australian dressing room, and then, fleetingly, towards the Indian dressing room. Cheeky, eh? At last, Smith made a mistake off Ashwin, hanging back on a fuller delivery and offering a low catch to Rahane at slip. He walked off having become only the second visiting captain after Alastair Cook to have scored three tons in a series in India. It’s a stunning record when you think of Smith’s predecessors: Bob Simpson, Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke.
Even though many of them didn’t have the luxury to play longer than a three-Test series here, it still takes very little away from Smith. Cook’s effort in 2011-12 earned his team the series win, but Smith’s team’s spectacular collapse from a formidable position weakens their case considerably. In the end, 189 runs by the remaining nine Australian batsmen meant day one of Test No.13 didn’t turn out to be as bad for India. In any case, ‘13’, as anyone in Dharamshala will tell you, is considered auspicious by Tibetans.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines