In the Riverbank Stands, right behind the massive sight-screen a bunch of Australians were snoring away, their legs stretched and poking into the white tarpaulin that covered the unoccupied seats. Some of them had picked a queue at the beer-and-burger counter. The rest were either yawning or fidgeting or playing games on their smartphones.
For, Australia had whittled out a meagre 60 runs in 28 overs, triggering caustic remarks like “they should all be drowned in the Torrens”. The inky black river that’s reminiscent of the Yamuna than Yarra, the only sight of pollution in an otherwise sparkling city.
Not even the presence of local-boy Travis Head could compel them to keep their eyes open. There was a sporadic burst of excitement when someone found the boundary (there were just half a dozen), or even a three, heck even a single was applauded by the time the session came to a grinding end.
It was not that Head and Peter Handscomb were playing deplorable cricket, they were battling as the circumstances and the surface permitted to, but it was not the staple Australian brand of cricket—as someone from the crowd jeered: “Seems like they’re English p*****s.
But it wasn’t merely a case of Australian batsmen shutting shop—it’s understandable for a young batting side to pull the shutters at the slightest whiff of a calamity, and Australia undoubtedly are riding calamitous times. It was more a case of Indian bowlers conjuring one of their most meticulous bowling efforts — wherein everyone played their bit-part role to perfection, supporting and adding substance to Ashwin’s titular role.
It began with Ishant Sharma, who the Australian crowd love to rile. “Here comes Curtly,” shouted a group as he bristled in with the new-ball. “If only his bowling was as good as his hair,” snipped another. Ishant muted them with the second ball, the ball ripping past Aaron Finch’s expansive drive and he immediately put his index finger on the lips in the direction of an irritatingly ribbing crowd in the Riverbank Stand. Perhaps, the stroke was imprudent, not quite drivable, but the prodigious deviation he produced promised more such bursts of instant thrill. It wasn’t so.
That got Ishant going, he was fired up, but not to the extend to being overawed and trying too hard, as he was increasingly prone to in the past. He was just hitting the corridor, slanting the ball away from the two left-handers, Usman Khawaja and Harris, before he came around wicket, searching for the one that held the seam. Neither did he afford them any width nor did he slip down the leg-side. It was aggressive yet stifling bowling, demonstrating how well he has accosted to the lead-bowler responsibility, pushing Australians into outright defending.
His new-ball accomplice Jaspit Bumrah took time to find his groove, rarely procuring the lethal lift he’s known to achieve, he struggled to keep his line from around the stumps, but once he found the groove, he was seaming the ball both ways. Even if he was unfortunate to not heckle a wicket, he shut them out. Consequently, they had to wait till the eighth over for the first boundary, that too in the streakiest of fashions. Mohammed Shami was similarly erratic—Harris struck him for three risk-prone boundaries in an over.
But it’s when the new-ball lost its sheen that the collectivism of Indian bowlers picked up, when their discipline shone over the spectacular. Seldom in the past have they worked so systematically as a group. There used to be an odd spell of genius, a scattered burst of hostility, but not such sustained high-quality bowling or an acute awareness of the circumstance.
Realising that there was negligible help from the surface to bowl a fuller length, and there was no point in banging the ball short, as there was’t much bounce, they bowled unrelentingly outside the off-stump. Short-of-length bowling was working perfectly, as Australians struggled for timing. Just before lunch Bumrah returned for a spell wherein he bowled four successive maiden overs at Khawaja.
The dry spell of runs eventually resulted in Harris losing his focus and Shaun Marsh attempting an extravagant stroke soon after lunch. Only Head, and to a stretch Peter Handscomb, weren’t flustered with the lack of runs. Head aptly summed in up after the day’s play: “It’s not that we didn’t look to attack, but we couldn’t. It was such a disciplined bowling effort from the Indian pacers and Ashwin.”
While no one talks of economy rate in Test cricket, it was one of those days where it mattered significantly. Apart from Shami, none of them leaked more than three, they bowled a combined 31 maiden overs and conceded only 17 boundaries. That it was Australia’s worst run-rate (2.17) in the first innings of a Test match more than captures the story, as it does explain the crowd’s frustration, blessed as they were with the likes of aggressive openers from Michael Slater to David Warner.
But it was a day that suited Slater’s more subdued partner Greg Blewett, or someone like Ed Cowan or Matt Renshaw. It was as Harris summed it up: “A day of old-fashioned attritional cricket.” Though it was the Indian bowlers who showed the requisite attrition more than the Aussie batsmen. And though they shared only four wickets among themselves, they can reflect on this day as their pack mentality shone brighter than the Aussies. They eventually won over the Aussie spectators too, as someone shouted: “Some beer, mate”