Mumbai: After Australia’s stunning victory in the first Test at Pune – by 333 runs and in under three days - rumours abound that the pitch was `doctored’ to make it a rank turner for the benefit of the home team.
The Indian team management has hotly denied they had any say in the preparation of the track. After the match, both chief coach and captain Virat Kohli said that no instructions had gone out from them on what kind of pitch they wanted.
Let’s face it. Australia coped with the conditions and pitch so well that it would appear they were the home team, not India! They batted, bowled, fielded more skillfully and showed greater resolve, in the process doling out an object lesson on how to play on a dustbowl.
Even allowing for three dropped catches, Steve Smith’s century revealed master class. His technique and footwork is unorthodox, but he adapts quickly and is adept at working the ball in the gaps with last minute adjustments, or punishing the loose delivery severely. That is the hallmark of great batsmen.
Smith’s second innings century snuffed out any chance India had of coming back into the game after conceding a mammoth 155 runs lead. But his prowess is now universally acknowledged. It was how some other players responded to the challenge that accentuated Australia’s dominance.
Twenty-year-old Matt Renshaw constructed a superb half century in the first innings, showing fine technique and temperament. Mitchell Starc’s blistering half century showed not just depth in the batting order, but also fierce ambition.
The batsmen gave enough runs for bowlers to feel they had a chance at stymieing the famed Indian batsmen, and left arm spinner Steve O’Keefe, included in the side almost as an afterthought, ran through the batting in both innings.
His arm delivery was well concealed, well directed, and often left the batsmen bewildered. One that got Virat Kohli shouldering arms in the second innings was a peach, the tremors of which must be still being felt in the Indian camp.
All of this reflects the hard preparation that they have put in for this series. Australia’s overseas record in the past couple of years has been dismal. Against spin bowling, and particularly in Asia, they have been easy pickings.
A camp in Dubai prior to the tour with conditions simulated to match those obtained in India has obviously been of big help. But it is the hardy, ambitious, never-say-die approach of the players that was more admirable, suggesting that Smith & Co are here on a mission.
Make no mistake. The pitch was spiteful from the first ball. When slow bowlers from both teams are asked to open the bowling it is not a maverick tactic, rather a discredit to Test cricket.
Also, Smith winning the toss gave his team a distinct advantage. But the toss is always 50-50, and India would have factored in the possibility of losing it, believing that their players, more familiar with such conditions, would cope better.
What was evidenced was to the contrary. The Test went topsy-turvy from the second day when India collapsed ignominiously in the second session, losing 7 wickets for just 11 runs in less than half an hour.
The paltry first innings total of 105 was exceeded by a mere 2 runs but more tellingly, the second lasted just 33.5 overs, 6.2 overs fewer than the first suggesting that things had gone from bad to worse.
The body language of the batsmen seemed to declare pessimism. Drooping shoulders is a clear sign of haplessness. This is something not seen in the players over the past couple of years, and more so this home season when India have been on a roll.
From the kind of strokes played – or not – and the manner in which reviews were squandered by the openers (not to mention the dropped catches), it appeared that the team was flustered.
While a win was virtually impossible after being 155 runs behind on the first innings, a grittier batting performance in the second would have signaled that the Indian team had learnt from mistakes and unwilling to give up without a fight.
But what is abundantly clear is that they must recover swiftly – tactically, technically and temperamentally -- if they have to stop the opponents from taking a stranglehold in the series.
Kohli was candid in admitting his team had played badly, saying the setback was a reality check. Introspection is an important step in shrugging off the trauma of the first Test defeat, but ultimately what matters is how the players cope in the middle.
The Aussies have come here with a plan and purpose. India have to be at their best to redeem lost pride as well as protect their number 1 Test ranking.