India have continued their relentless pursuit of an undefeated home season, restricting Australia to 256 for nine after the visitors had won the toss and batted first. As we saw on their last visit to Asia, when they toured Sri Lanka, Australia’s middle order struggle against the turning ball, but some late-order runs have given them a chance of getting something out of this game.
Having seen reasonably placid surfaces for the matches against England and Bangladesh, there was a return to a pitch that turns from the first ball of the match in Pune. It was dry and cracked before play got underway and it came as no surprise when Ravichandran Ashwin was given the new ball. He was tying the batsmen in knots straight away, and there was real concern that the Australians wouldn’t be able to cope with a trial by spin, having failed that test so often in the past.
Despite playing and missing often, and edging the ball almost as regularly, Matt Renshaw and David Warner took Australia to 82 without loss before a wicket fell. And then when Warner did depart, it was a seamer that got him. He hung his bat at a ball from Umesh Yadav and inside edged the ball on to his stumps.
Before another ball had been bowled Australia had lost their other opener as well. As Steve Smith was making his way to the middle, he met Renshaw going the other way. It became clear that Renshaw had a bathroom emergency and needed to leave the field before he befouled himself. Remarkably, this was criticised by former Australian captain Allan Border. “I hope he's lying on the table in there half dead,” Border told Fox Sports at lunchtime. There is bravery, and then there is happily defecating in your pants. Leaving the field to do the needful in those circumstances seemed fair enough.
Warner should have been dismissed when he was on 20. Jayant Yadav bowled him around his legs, but the off-break bowler had overstepped by some distance. It didn’t end up costing India too dearly, Warner was dismissed on 34, but it was profligate.
India were equally generous to their opponents with the use of their first two reviews. The first was for a suspected outside edge by Renshaw off Ashwin. The next for an LBW shout against Steve Smith off Umesh that was very optimistic. On a pitch that is turning, reviews become all the more vital and India rushed through theirs with two poor calls.
This surface meant that patience was the key. Australia’s batsmen have enough technical and psychological flaws against spin bowling that wickets would come. Virat Kohli and his bowlers did well to not try anything particularly revolutionary, but a change in angle did bring about the next wicket. Jayant came over the wicket to the left-handed Shaun Marsh and induced a sweep shot. The ball struck his pad and then clipped his bat to give leg slip a catch.
Australia had done well in the first half of the day, losing just two wickets in the first 46 overs. For the most part they reined in their more attacking instincts, happy to rotate the strike. It was a tactic that got them to 149 for two. They had shown that they could survive in these trying conditions, but scoring was much, much harder.
Wickets began to tumble. India would have known that getting Smith was the key to blowing through this Australian batting lineup, and that may have been the reason they were so keen to review Umesh’s LBW shout.
It was going for a rare attacking shot that brought about Smith’s demise. He came down the pitch to Ashwin and tried to nit him over the top. He picked out Kohli at mid-wicket and was out for 27 from 95 balls. With the captain gone, first Peter Handscomb and then Mitchell Marsh, were pinned LBW by rare balls that didn’t turn from Ravindra Jadeja.
Australia lost last eight wickets for just 86 runs as that solid start was ripped up, thrown in the trash and set on fire. And most of the damage was done by a seam bowler — Umesh. Despite all the turn the Indian spinners were getting, it was the pace of Umesh that claimed the best figures of four for 32.
India weren’t at their ruthless best on Thursday. They bowled more bad balls than we have come to expect, and six no-balls showed an element of ill-discipline. When they took the new ball Australia were nine wickets down and India did not bowl well with it, allowing Australia to get to the close of play with their final wicket pair still intact. It hasn’t cost them too heavily, because they are so dominant in these conditions, but India had the chance to be in complete control and didn’t take it.
The bright spot for Australia was Renshaw who returned from his stomach related difficulties to top score with 68. Perhaps going off to use the toilet wasn’t evidence of his lack of grit after all. He was the one Australian that was happy to consistently defend against the turning ball on the front foot and he rarely swept the ball, instead happy to work the ball off his pads when given the chance. He eventually fell to a defensive shot that was rare in its indecisiveness. He propped forward to Ashwin and edged to second slip.
The other highlight for the Australians was the late-order hitting from Mitchell Starc, who blasted his way to 57 from 59 balls, to show his more illustrious batting colleagues that this pitch wasn’t completely unplayable.
India have done well to restrict Australia to 256 for nine after losing the toss, but if could have been better; in fact it should have been better. This match is not over yet. Australia will hope that the extra pace of Mitchell Starc and the spin of Nathan Lyon will allow them to challenge, but India’s batsman are far more capable of mastering these trying conditions than their Australian counterparts.