The stage was set perfectly, the beautiful city of Adelaide serving up cloudless skies and a warm day, with temperatures nearing that should have made India’s batsmen feel right at home. Virat Kohli got over his miserable run at the toss, winning a good one, and had no hesitation in choosing to bat.
There was also no adventurism in selection, India opting for Rohit Sharma at No. 6 over Hanuma Vihari and his part-time off-spin. So far, so good.
Then came the batting kings bearing gifts, a bit early even with Christmas not far away. KL Rahul, who has been bowled or LBW in the last nine innings he has played, went after a full, wide ball from Josh Hazlewood and delivered a thick edge at perfect catching height to Aaron Finch at third slip.
The opening stand was worth a mere three runs, and lasted all of two overs, abysmal even by the poor record that Rahul and M Vijay have strung together in overseas Tests. The pair averaged 11.22 away from home for the opening stand before this innings, and it only became worse.
The second care package was delivered by Vijay to Mitchell Starc, another footwork-free waft outside the off stump to a ball that could and should have been left well alone, this time Tim Paine cleaning up behind the stumps. Vijay, once one of the best leavers of the ball in international cricket, will not be best pleased when the video analyst informs him that not a single ball he faced from Starc was threatening the stumps.
So the pattern from England continued and it was at this point that Kohli took the game by the scruff of the neck and showed his colleagues what he meant when he said the previous day: “We are not looking to start tentatively. We all want to express ourselves, go out there and be positive. (I am) Not meaning that we are going to play rash shots.”
But Pat Cummins did not get this memo, and when he suckered Kohli into going after a full, widish delivery, early in the innings, Usman Khawaja flew to his left, plucking the ball out of the air even as it went past him at gully. Superman might have flown longer, but certainly no faster than Khawaja, and a third Indian batsman had nicked off.
Ajinkya Rahane seemed to have learned from the mistakes made by his top three, bedding down to face 30 balls for only 13 runs, but off the 31st he decided to go one better, chasing a ball so wide outside the off stump that his bottom hand came off the bat by the time he had completed the edge to the slip cordon.
India were 41 for 4, and although hope hadn’t evaporated, there came the reminder that in 23 times when they had lost four wickets for 50 or less overseas, they had never won, lost 17 times and drawn only six matches.
Rohit Sharma, long thought to be the golden boy of Indian batting, and a dominator of the white ball in all conditions, had his golden opportunity, returning to the Test team on the basis of his back-foot play. There was early vindication of this when Cummins unloaded a bouncer. Rohit, in perfect position, transferred weight onto the back foot precisely and pulled the ball over the square-leg boundary. Then came an even more gorgeous shot, off the same bowler: a 143 kmph delivery outside the off stump lofted over cover for six, a hit clean through the line as though this was club cricket.
Unfortunately, the club cricket mentality set in not soon after. Rohit was lucky when Marcus Harris, the debutant, was just about unable to hold onto a heave, stepping over the boundary at deep square to give the batsman the third six of his innings. Off the very next ball, Rohit went again, same shot, same direction, same fielder, except Nathan Lyon, the bowler, shortened his length, got the ball to turn a fraction more and this time the catch was a straightforward one.
With 86 on the board, India’s top five had all been guilty of shot selection that ranged from dodgy to diabolical, and Australia had been handed the initiative on a platter.
Had it not been for Pujara, who ground his way to possibly the most valuable century of the sixteen he has made in Tests, defending wisely, denying the bowlers any quarter and picking his moments to try and score, and building a 62-run seventh-wicket partnership with R Ashwin, India’s goose would have been well and truly cooked.
They ended the day on 250 for 9, which went a long way in masking just how irresponsibly the top order had batted, and, more importantly, just about kept them in the game given how vulnerable the home team’s batting has been in the recent past and how impressive the visitors’ bowling attack has been overseas.
All is not lost, but that is thanks largely to one man, and for once his name is not Kohli.
Adelaide TestAustralia vs IndiaCheteshwar Pujarafirst testIndia vs AustraliaIndia vs Australia 2018Josh Hazlewoodkl rahulNathan LyonPat Cumminsrohit sharmavirat kohli
First Published: December 8, 2018, 2:01 AM IST