It’s not often that you’ll see a bowler come out on a day when the opposition has made 530 and speak of his own bowling spell in that innings as a memorable one. That too when his eventual figures read an unenviable 3/134 in 44 overs. But R Ashwin did that. He, in fact, insisted that his spells on the first two days of the Boxing Day Test was his “best overall performance” on Australian soil. But you couldn’t blame him for hyperbole. Ashwin did bowl well. In fact, he was excellent for most parts of the Australian innings. He had been accurate and consistent. And he had taken wickets for his captain.
In his first 37 overs, he had gone at less than two-runs-an-over, and held one end up, again a fair task when the opposition has plundered over 250 in two sessions of play.
On his previous tour, Ashwin had been criticized for being too impatient. For using the varieties in his bowling impetuously rather than with tact. But here, he had bowled with maturity and displayed impeccable nous. He had shown why he is India’s No.1 spinner in Tests.
But, as it turned out, he had little to show for it. And that too for the simple reason that there had been little support from the other end.
India’s fast bowlers had messed up, again. They had been all over the shop, again. It’s a predicament that we are used to by now — almost immune to, even. For, it’s happened incessantly, endlessly.
If Boxing Day had been about India denying Australia runs, and the hosts in return denying them wickets, the second day was all about a game of cat-and-mouse. It was supposed to be one anyway. But it turned out into a mismatch. And it was the Indian bowlers to blame again.
Throughout the Australian innings there were times where an Indian pair of bowlers had put the brakes on the hosts. Then Mohammed Shami would come and not just release them but also aid the opposition to press the accelerator.
Take the opening morning on Day One. At the end of the ninth over, Australia were 22/1. Chris Rogers and Shane Watson still finding their feet. A half-volley and a half-tracker were enough to get Rogers going. And before you knew it, the duo had put on a century-stand.
Fast forward to the second morning. The second new-ball is eight overs old. Brad Haddin is still looking out of sorts having been roughed up the previous evening. The stage is set for India to go for the jugular. What does Shami do? He concedes four boundaries in his first two overs — three off deliveries that land around the middle of the pitch and stand up to be smashed, and the fourth of a looped-up length delivery. Pressure released, momentum lost.
On both occasions, Shami had let his team down due to lack of control, a shocking unawareness of what he was trying to achieve, and zero planning.
Later in the day, the Australians would show how it’s done. Both in terms of hunting like one unit, and also in executing well ironed-out plans.
While they were on the attack with the new-ball, once Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan had seen it off, the Aussie attack as a collective began focusing on a uniform line and length. Ryan Harris and Shane Watson were operating on a good length outside the off-stump, varying their length slightly. Josh Hazlewood was pounding down deliveries slightly fuller but still generating lift from his great height. And unlike in Ashwin’s case, it meant Nathan Lyon could keep looking for wickets too.
They was planning to get the batsmen out. Not just trying to get them out anyhow like the Indians were.
Imagine if this was one of those cricket video-games, where as the bowling team you have to move the bowling marker along the length and breadth of the pitch before locking it in on a spot by pressing ‘Enter’. It seemed Australia were actually intent on moving the marker around before each delivery, while the Indians simply sat hitting ‘Enter’, literally hoping and praying that they would get a few on the right spot.