At the lunch break, Darren Lehmann and his retinue of support staff pranced around the pitch. By that time, their worst fears of a tacky pitch had dissipated. Australia had lost three wickets, but they owed little to the pitch. The visitors had rattled out 109 runs, and batting, while it was laborious, wasn’t a frightening proposition. Yet, a few doubts lurked — after Pune and Bangalore, they had enough reasons to not trust anything faintly foreign to their eyes. The smoky shade of the surface must have added to the intrigue. By the end of the day, though, all those apprehensions were snuffed. The pitch was at complete odds with the pre-match suspense it had inspired — there was neither snap nor bite, neither turn nor bounce. So much so that the deceitfulness of the strip was in that there was no deceit in it at all.
The Ranchi surface was, beyond dispute, among the most benign first-day surfaces since the South Africa series in 2015. There are numbers to support this assertion. Since that series, it was the second highest tally by a visiting side this season — behind England’s 311/4 in Rajkot. Also, the unbeaten 159-runs alliance between Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell is the third highest association by an overseas pair in this span, and the most prolific association of this series.
A better signifier of the strip’s docility is borne out by how India contrived to purchase three of the four wickets they did on Thursday. David Warner squirted the ball back to the bowler Ravindra Jadeja, the hitherto fluent Matt Renshaw inexplicably wafted at a delivery on the fifth-stump; Shaun Marsh played for R Ashwin’s nonexistent turn, and only Peter Handscomb’s scalp owed to a genuine piece of good bowling — Umesh Yadav, noticing his tendency to stay static on the back-foot, slipped in a fast, reverse-swinging yorker that hit him on the shoe plumb in front. Here again, Umesh had the necessary awareness to keep the delivery fuller than he generally would.
But the decisive factor in these dismissals, Handscomb’s aside, was luck. On a docile strip as this, the bowlers needed some. But they probably needed chunkier slices of fortune to stop Smith from whittling out his second hundred of the series — the most by any overseas batsman in the aforementioned time frame. For someone who had produced a treatise on batting — and countering — spin on a demanding Pune surface, this seemed like a stroll. As though he just needed to turn up, and runs would automatically flow.
Just as interrogative the Pune and Bangalore pitches were, it’s Ranchi counterpart posed its own sets of queries. In Pune, he couldn’t thrust forward freely, as it threatened the inside edge. In Bangalore, he couldn’t instinctively press back, for the ball could scud along shin-high. Hence, he was prompted to unfurl his low-percentage shots like the sweep, more as a ploy to unsettle the bowlers. Or he would nonchalantly step out.
However, the lack of turn and bounce doesn’t automatically make a surface easy to bat on. The sluggishness of it meant that he couldn’t uninhibitedly drive on the rise, for it risked a miscue to short mid-on specifically stationed for the error.
The lack of bounce ensured he couldn’t slap-cut as he wished, for the ball would occasionally stop on him. So he had to shelve two of his most productive shots, unless the factors were so conducive.
But the consummate player that he is, he would still find means to tick along, maybe not at a furious clip, as he tends to. So he would flick, tickle and punch-drive through the leg-side — as many as 70 runs came through the leg-side. Ironically, though, the boundary percentage is more equitable — six of the 13 were through the off-side. It had a brace of crunchy drives and back cuts, rather than slaps.
In a sense, he fed on the default fourth-stump persistence of the Indian bowler. His shuffly stance and the pronounced bottom-hand, his bat looping down from almost third man, he could just wrist the ball through the leg. Purists will snide that such an angled bat, in alliance with a tendency to thrust the front pad, will imperil him, making him a sitting duck against the swinging ball. It was a ploy the English bowlers had futilely deployed in the last two Ashes. But his bat straightens on the downswing, while the whip-crack hands and sharp eyes will take care of the rest.
On Thursday, he regulated his shuffle too — it was shorter than usual. There’s an interesting story about how he began to stride too much across. Four years ago, at the WACA, the English bowlers were peppering him with short balls aimed at the rib-cage. So he decided to bail himself out of trouble by moving across, showing all three stumps, and pulling them behind square leg. Sometimes, such on-the-go tweaks work wonders for his technique, and confidence, and Smith since then has averaged close to 70. The shuffle has stuck on to him since, but even here he sometimes makes minor adjustments, like all good batsmen.
Though perceivably less taxing than the Pune effort, this hundred could be sweeter for Smith, coming as it did after the integrity aspersions slapped by Virat Kohli. And perhaps more definitive to the outcome of the series.