Ranchi: The ‘darkest’ pitch as per Australia skipper Steven Smith turned out to be the most docile of the series so far as the visitors crawled to 299 for 4 at stumps with Smith (117*) and Glenn Maxwell (82*) at the crease on the opening day of the third Test between India and Australia at the JSCA International Stadium in Ranchi on Thursday.
In fact, it was an appeal from India wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha in the 80th over — when a delivery from R Ashwin hit Smith on the pad and got stuck between the batsman’s legs and Saha appealed, much to umpire Ian Gould’s delight — that got the crowd woke up from the slumber.
Smith during the innings also reached 5000 Test runs, becoming the third fastest behind Sir Donald Bradman and Sunil Gavaskar to reach the feat. The Australian skipper took 57 Test matches to reach the landmark while Bradman took 36 Tests and Gavaskar took 52 games.
With India expected to bat last, the Indian players will have to show more intent when they take the field on the second day. Hopefully Kohli will be back to lead the team on the second day and the hosts will show more aggression as compared to the drooped shoulders on display in the last two sessions on Thursday.
For the visitors though, it was a field day as skipper Smith played a subdued knock and found the perfect ally in all-rounder Maxwell. Brought into the playing XI after injury forced Mitchell Marsh to be sent back to Australia, Maxwell showed good intent and curbed his aggressive instinct to register his maiden fifty in Test cricket.
More than the runs, it was the ease with which he played both the Indian pacers and spinners that will give coach Darren Lehmann a good sleep at night. He waited for the bad deliveries and kept rotating the strike when the going got tough and the Indian spinners looked to dominate. At one point, Maxwell looked like the best Australian batsman on display. His unbeaten 159-run partnership with Smith for the fifth wicket will definitely work wonders for the batsman’s confidence. He has indeed reaped the rewards of a disciplined approach at the crease.
Coming to the Indians, it was a case of losing the plot the moment the captaincy reins were handed over to Ajinkya Rahane thanks to Kohli’s injury. Rahane is clearly a man of few words and that didn’t help the cause as the Indians needed a leader who would make things happen in the middle rather than let the game drift after a quality opening session where they picked the three important wickets of David Warner (19), Matt Renshaw (44) and Shaun Marsh (2).
The bowlers almost looked at Rahane for fresh ideas with the pitch not helping their cause and Rahane seemed more interested to consult wicket-keeper Saha — another introvert character — than take the decisions himself.
But Ravindra Jadeja reposed skipper Kohli’s faith as he immediately removed Warner against the run of play. Warner mishit Jadeja’s full toss straight to the bowler and known for having the safest hand in the circuit at present, Jadeja made no mistake.
Smith came in to join Renshaw and while the latter looked in great form and took the initiative to keep the scoring rate going, Smith looked a bit dicey. But the focus was there and both kept the scoring going. Kohli this time turned to Umesh and just like through the series, the pacer didn’t disappoint as he sent Renshaw back with one that moved slightly after pitching to take the batsman’s edge. Kohli completed a regulation catch in the slips.
Marsh failed to build on his good show in the second Test and was sent back by Ashwin, caught by Cheteshwar Pujara at forward short-leg, but Peter Handscomb looked keen to finally convert a start to a solid knock.
Handscomb drove, flicked and even ran the quick singles. But as luck would have it, he too was dismissed against the run of play by Umesh. The ball tailed in late to hit Handscomb (19) on the boot and there was no doubt in the umpire’s mind that the Australian was caught plumb in front.
But that was the end of India’s joy on the opening day as Maxwell and Smith combined beautifully to ensure that the visitors lost no further wickets. Joining Smith with the score on 140/4, it was important that Maxwell showed patience and application — something he has lacked in recent times, forcing his ouster from the Australian side.
Yet, there was no deterring Maxwell on Thursday. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands and ended up facing the maximum number of deliveries in his international career so far as he ended the day having faced 147 balls.