India’s nightmare in Pune came to an embarrassing end on Saturday as they watched Steve Smith score 109 before being bowled out for 107. Records would have needed to tumble for them to get close to their victory target of 441, and this was not the pitch for batting records.
They have been comfortably outplayed by a team that had not won a Test in Asia since 2011, and who last won in India in 2004. Australia had lost nine consecutive matches in Asia going into this match, India had not been beaten at home in nearly five years. The run of home matches without defeat for India had stretched to 19. No one, not even the most optimistic and myopic of Australian supporters, was expecting this.
The Australian spinners out-bowled their counterparts, the Aussie batsmen did far better than the Indians. Australia’s fielding was light years ahead of the butter-fingered and ham-fisted efforts of the hosts. Even when it came down to use of the Decision Review System (DRS) the home side found themselves wanting. If these teams were to have a table tennis tournament on their two days off in Pune, Australia would have ended up winning by default when an Indian player fell on the table and broke it.
India were pretty much out of this game at the start of day three, but if they were going to have any chance, they needed quick wickets, and one of those needed to be Steve Smith who began the day on 59 not out. Smith was not in any mood to give his wicket away, and he was a lot more secure than on Friday, when he gave India three catches, chances that they didn’t take. There was an lbw that would have been given if India had not shot through their reviews like a smoker who has access to cigarettes after a long-haul flight, but he made it to his 18th Test hundred. Smith made 136 runs in this match, in contrast Virat Kohli made 13 including a second-ball duck in the first innings. One captain turned up, the other didn’t.
Smith’s innings was as impressive in what he didn’t do as with what he did. He rarely looked to do anything flamboyant as he made his way to his hundred, instead he looked to pick up singles by dropping the ball into the leg side. It was impressive to watch him stick to his task, and this innings will be remembered for a long time, but it was not a classic. There was a huge amount of luck involved, and while that takes nothing away from his achievement, it should temper some of the hyperbolic praise that will stream forth in the coming days. Smith has comfortably been the best batsman on this tricky surface, and for that he deserves a lot of credit.
The Indian spinners neither kept things tight or found a way to run through Australia, with the issue being that they were often turning the ball too much. This was very much the case for Ravindra Jadeja who beat the bat in almost every over he bowled. There was too much deviation for a batsman to get near it. You can’t edge a ball if you are missing it by a foot. Steve O’Keefe, who is not a big turner of the ball, was more effective as he has been able to turn the ball just enough to find the edge or beat the bat.
This was on display in both Indian innings. Once O’Keefe changed ends he dominated India in a home Test in a way no opposition bowler has since Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar led England to a series win in 2012. O’Keefe did as much damage with balls that didn’t turn as with ones that did, with the dismissal of Virat Kohli in the second innings evidence of how dangerous balls that go straight on are on a big spinning pitch. Kohli left a ball that pitched on an off-stump line expecting it to turn past his stumps. It didn’t, and he was bowled for 13.
O’Keefe took 6-35 in both innings to finish with match figures of 12 for 70. That is the best return for an Australian bowler in India, and the second best ever by a visiting bowler behind Ian Botham’s 13 for 106 in 1980.
If no one expected Australia to win, even fewer people believed that O’Keefe would be the match-winner. In that way India were undone by the pitch, rather than giving them an advantage it allowed the Australian bowlers back into the game. On the fairly placid surfaces we have seen thus far in this series it has been Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja that have dominated as their subtle variations tied visiting batsmen in knots. Here that threat was nullified as the pitch ragged square for any bowler that gave it a tweak.
That is not to take anything away from Australia, who were faultless. They got themselves in front in this match when India bowled badly with the the new ball on the first evening, and they never let India back into the match. Bowling India out for 105 and 107 and winning by 333 runs is a result that will reverberate around the cricketing world. Australia didn’t so much win, as dismantle India at their own game in their backyard.
India, on the other hand, were terrible. After so many near perfect displays they seemed to put all of their bad performances together in two and a half days on ineptitude. Kohli called this India’s worst batting performance in two years, that is probably being too kind.
There is a long way to go in this series, and while there will be wringing of hands after such a stinging loss India are still well placed to come back from this defeat and win this series. All their good work is not undone by one defeat — in fact it could have the opposite effect. The chastening nature of the loss may act as a rallying call to Kohli’s men to finish their long home season of Test cricket as they began it. But Australia will rarely have a better chance of a series win in India than after this Pune Test.