It has been easy to forget that one of the great Test series of recent times is unfolding in front of us as India and Australia played in Ranchi. There has been so much self-righteous posturing, petty point scoring and angry outbursts that it has been easy to miss this absorbing contest. If childish bickering between cricket teams could be harnessed for energy, this series would end the fossil fuel crisis.
Away from the “he said, she said” press conferences the cricket has been brilliant. Day two in Ranchi saw Steve Smith make yet another massive contribution with the bat. These have become so commonplace that they are at the point of being ubiquitous. Smith’s average is currently 61.46 in Test cricket. Since he made his first Test hundred in the 2013 Ashes, a point where his place in the Test team was still a matter for debate, he has scored 4482 runs at an average of 72.29 in 42 matches.
Those runs have been scored on every continent. He averages over 40 in every country in which he has played a Test. In India, the country where Australia have struggled so badly in recent times, his average is now 63.87. That is the highest by any Australian that has played five or more Tests in India. Michael Clarke’s average in India is 40.5, Ricky Ponting’s is just 26.48.
On Friday, he finished on 178 not out, he would have had yet another Test match double ton if he hadn’t run out of partners. While you will not find yourself gushing about the aesthetic brilliance of a Smith innings, no one can doubt his effectiveness. The way he shuffles across his stumps should get him in trouble, and it would if he missed the ball. The problem for his opponents is that he doesn’t miss. No one around the world has found a way to check his scoring, and the large sample size of innings completed makes you wonder if they ever will.
Australia were 140 for four when they lost Peter Handscomb on the first day, and they were in danger of being bundled out for an noncompetitive score on the best batting pitch of this series thus far. Thanks to Smith they were eventually bowled out for 451. But the Australian captain did not do it on his own. Glenn Maxwell, the million dollar IPL man and swashbuckling biffer, made a maiden Test hundred.
Maxwell replaced the injured Mitchell Marsh at number six, but there is every chance the younger Marsh brother was going to get dropped. Mitchell has played 21 Tests and has a batting average of just 21.74. Sometimes in cricket the idea of a player is better than the reality, and while Marsh scoring runs and taking wickets seems plausible it has rarely happened in Tests.
Number six has been a troublesome spot for Australia in recent times. Over the last two years it has been occupied by Callum Ferguson, Nic Maddinson, Adam Voges, Phil Nevill, Hilton Cartwright and Shane Watson. Over that same time frame Australia’s number six batsman has made two fifties — one for Marsh and one for Voges.
The clamour for Maxwell to play Test cricket has been increasing in recent times, especially as Mitchell Marsh’s struggles became more and more pronounced. Maxwell averaged 56 in last season's Sheffield Shield, but his Test record until today was mediocre. In his three matches between 2013 and 2014 he averaged just 13 with the bat and looked frenetic and muddled at the crease.
As he made his way to 104 from 185 balls Maxwell looked completely at home. One innings does not make a Test career, but today’s evidence Maxwell is a much safer bet than any of the others than have batted six for Australia over the last two years.
For India, they looked rudderless in the absence of Virat Kohli who was off the field with a shoulder injury. It is doubtful that Kohli’s presence would have stopped either Smith or Maxwell, but there was a definite lack of intensity from a team led by Ajinkya Rahane.
The one bright spark for India was Ravindra Jadeja who ended up with another five-wicket haul, once again doing the damage on a good pitch. On the turning pitch in Pune at the start of this series he did too much with the ball, on a good batting surface in India
The pre-match bitching about this Ranchi pitch before this game that got underway from both inside and outside the Australian camp was bordering on the ridiculous. By the time Australia had reached 451, the highest score they have made in India since 2010, it was laughable. There are many that have written and tweeted about this pitch in the days leading up to Ranchi’s first Test that owe the curator an apology.
When it came to India’s turn to bat the surface held up well as KL Rahul and Murali Vijay made the first opening stand of over 50 for India in this series. That stand that was worth 91 by the time it was brought to an end by Pat Cummins when he bowled a beautiful lifting ball that took Rahul’s edge.
It was Rahul’s fourth fifty in five innings, with only Smith having more runs in this series. In Pune, Rahul played an extremely poor shot that precipitated an Indian collapse. He repaid his team with a fifty in each innings in Bangalore that proved to match-winning. Here he would have been hoping he could finally make a really big score, especially as it was unclear if, when and how well Kohli would bat. That ball from Cummins made sure that didn’t happen as he departed for 67.
Cummins played his first Test against South Africa nearly six years ago as an 18-year-old. He hasn’t played a Test since as he has been riddled with injury. If both Starc and Cummins can be fit and firing at the same time they will be the most exciting opening pair in Test cricket. Whether or not Australia can force a win in this match may depend on Cummins making it through this match without yet another injury. His extra pace is a rare and exciting quality.
With India making it to 120 for one at the close the draw is the most likely result, but Australia are the team that could push for a win. It was another day where Australia have performed brilliantly in a series that everyone expected them to lose.