Victimhood is the easiest trap to fall into, and visiting cricket teams particularly from England and Australia seem unusually prone to the disease.
"Horrible wicket" has been the default narrative through this series, and that judgment has been particularly shrill before the start of this Test – early pictures of the wicket inspired considerable heartburn in the Aussie press and memes on social media, the media chorus augmented by various Australian players and support staff shaking heads and clicking tongues.
The trouble with such sustained narratives is that it is easy to convince yourself of its truth – you saw this repeatedly with the Aussie batsmen, who got first use of a wicket that for all its damning produced nothing out of the ordinary: no inordinate bounce, no real turn, no nothing. Australia got off the blocks like a rocket, but when spin came on, the pitch came into play – at least in the minds of the batsmen.
Thus, David Warner didn't bother to see what Ravindra Jadeja's deliveries were doing off the deck – he was determined to not let the left armer settle, blasted an unconvincing four off the first ball he faced and then slapped the next ball, a full toss of the kind batsmen dream about, straight back to the bowler. Shaun Marsh, similarly, played for the bounce and turn that Ashwin was not getting off this deck; played inside the line and pushed with very hard hands for the inner edge onto pad.
Umesh Yadav was the one who earned his wickets. The first was a mental game – against the impressive Matt Renshaw batting with extreme fluidity. Umesh took to going wide on the crease from around the wicket, angling into off or just outside, threatening to reverse the oddball away and find the outer edge. The attack had Renshaw pushing at everything in defence since he was never sure which way the ball would go, and when Umesh straightened one down the line and wide of the stumps, the reflexive hard handed push got the outer edge to Kohli at slip. And against Handscomb, a very fast, late-swinging yorker beat the defense and found the boot in front of off and middle.
An interesting aspect of this Indian team, which contrasts markedly from previous versions, has been their willingness to tighten things up and keep their nerve and patience over long, fallow periods. Usually, the building of a partnership has been the signal for the bowlers to go defensive, try too many lines and lengths and leak runs. Here, as almost throughout the home season, the bowlers tried things out in their first spells, worked out pretty rapidly that there was nothing much for them, found their optimal bowling plans, and then adhered to those with a relentlessness that spoke volumes.
Australia scored 64 runs for the loss of Warner in the first hour of play. The second hour produced 45 for the loss of two wickets, also off 15 overs. The hour after lunch produced 42 for one wicket, off 15 as the Indian bowlers again planned and bowled their overs to prescription. The fourth hour of play resulted in 43 off 15, Steve Smith and Glen Maxwell playing with restraint and focussing on keeping the bowlers away from breaking through.
The last hour of play, in contrast, produced 57 runs in 15.5 overs. Smith got to his 100 – his 19th in Test cricket, and his sixth against India. Glen Maxwell eased past his previous best Test score, got to 50, and then got even better.
"This wicket played a lot better than I thought it would," Smith said after play. "The bounce has been consistent," he said. He could have added that when he and Maxwell played the bowling and not the imagined terrors of the pitch, batting looked easy if you had the patience, the runs came easy, and India was reduced to calling on Murali Vijay's part-time spin just to fill in a few overs and give the hardworking frontline bowlers a break.
Smith played as he knows how – with tremendous restraint and, making allowances for his idiosyncratic feet movement, with great skill. The revelation was Maxwell – a selection against the grain, Maxwell just edging Stoinis for a place. He played the early part of his innings with considerable restraint, his first 50 balls faced producing just 19 runs. Once he had his eye in and figured out what the pitch was doing – nothing much at all – he eased through the gears, working the ball around on both sides of the wicket, opening his shoulders only to the full length from spin, and even then hitting very straight, and scoring 63 off the next 97 balls faced without ever looking in trouble.
The Indians bowled with the discipline that has been the trademark in recent times. Just about the only aberration related to Jadeja, who late in the first hour after tea finally discovered that if he went over the wicket and looked for the bowler's footmarks outside the right-hander's off stump, could find bounce and turn. One such delivery had Maxwell in trouble, pushing a pad blindly in defence, the ball bouncing off to first slip with the faintest touch of glove on the way. The umpire turned the appeal down, the Indians did not review and that was fair, given the edge was very faint (India had both its reviews left at the time, though).
What was surprising was that just when Jadeja began posing problems for both batsmen, he was taken off and Ashwin got a bowl from that end. He tried to hit that same spot, but the angle was against him – he had to bowl across the right hander, angling sharply outside leg looking to bring it back in; the batsmen countered with ease and on one occasion, Smith even played a standing sweep for four.
Outside of that, India did all they could on a wicket that gave them nothing. The quicks were very full for the most part, homing in on the stumps; Ashwin was tight for the most part on a deck giving him nothing; Jadeja probed away constantly, but the fifth wicket partnership was just too good for the Indians; Smith and Maxwell have put Australia ahead in the game with their unbroken 159-run partnership at a healthy 3.3 runs per over.
The second day should be just as good for batting, likely even better as whatever moisture there was from pre-game watering will have dried up, the roller will flatten things out. It is Australia's running to make, and India now have an uphill battle ahead of them to try and keep the visitors from putting up the kind of score that can win.
But hey, what about that "horrible" pitch, though?