The only Indian who did not bat like a millionaire on day one of the first Test between India and Australia in Adelaide isn’t one in any case – at least he’s not an IPL millionaire like his top-order colleagues! And that was the essential difference between Cheteshwar Pujara and the rest of the batsmen on the opening day at Adelaide Oval.
Pujara (123; 246 balls, 7x4, 2x6) was as solid as a rock and the contrast between him and others was as stark as day and night.
It is not that India’s batsmen lacked ability. But there was a distinct looseness in their approach that the experienced Australian bowlers gleefully captilaised on the day.
The first day of the first Test in an important series is basically a battle of nerves. It sets the tone for the rest of the Test and series. Every player wants to start well and this gnawing desire often leads to excessive apprehension and nervousness.
KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli, all wanted to get off to a good start and make a mark. But in their anxiety to do so they unwisely threw bat to ball without first conquering their demons.
It was apparent as soon as Kohli opted to bat first that this decision could be a tricky one. But Kohli went for it for a very sound reason: the Adelaide strip is a drop-in pitch and these, usually, are not subject to normal wear and tear. That being the case, nobody can be sure as to how the pitch would behave or deteriorate over five days. In such situations, the best option would be to not throw away the toss but instead fall back on an age-old adage in cricket: when in doubt, bat first.
Having done that, it was paramount that the openers see through the first hour of play; especially as they would be excessively vulnerable to the new ball, fresh pitch and attacking bowlers during that period of play.
However, for that to happen, the openers were required to be in the ‘zone’, where the single-minded objective would be survival.
Different players try and get to this state of mind in different ways. For instance, Sunil Gavaskar, the master batsmen, would withdraw into a shell even as he padded up. He would not speak to anyone, nor even look them in the eye. His teammates would steer clear of him in the dressing room. He’d pad up well in time, not be hurried and then stay focused till he had to walk out to bat.
Likewise, Rahul Dravid would try to slow time down from the start of the day. He’d get up early and go about his chores in a slow, unhurried manner. He’d ensure that he was calm, cool and collective so that by the time he had to bat he’d carry that relaxed mindset to the crease.
Unfortunately for India, openers KL Rahul and the man they call the monk, Murali Vijay, could not get into that ‘zone’. They were edgy and wanted to get on with it, rather than letting the bowlers come on to them.
This was akin to flirting with danger. Sometimes it works; you get a couple of boundaries, edgy or otherwise, and then settle down to play in a relaxed manner.
It didn’t happen that way on Thursday. It was not just their nerves, their inability to conquer growing anxiety was also obvious.
It is here that the Aussies revealed how shrewd they were in such situations. They knew they just had to be patient. The bowlers kept bowling at a driving length, darting them wide of the off-stump. If the batsmen shouldered arms they ensured that they would not get used to it by simply varying line or slipping in a delivery that tilted inwards.
Rahul, in his eagerness to get going, succumbed to an age-old trap. He drove distantly and was snared in the slips.
His dismissal in only the second over of the match ought to have cautioned the others on the perils of driving on the up. But like him, the others, Kohli, Vijay and Rahane were also anxious to get away with a few spanking drives. And they too ended up looking silly.
At 41 for 4 and 86 for 5 India were down and out for the count. Rahane chased a wide delivery and paid the price. But it was the batting of Rohit Sharma and Rishab Pant which looked chancy rather than convincing.
What Rohit Sharma was trying to do, only he would know. Three sixes and two boundaries in his knock of 37 hardly suggest that he was in Test cricket mode. Even earlier, a cover-driven boundary against off-spinner Nathan Lyon looked extremely unconvincing.
Of course, he would have reasoned that the only way he could pull the side out of trouble was by hitting out. But after making a quick-fire 37, he ought to have settled down to play long innings. Instead, he played the worst shot of the day to sky a catch off Lyon.
Pant (25 off 38 balls) looked like a country slogger rather than a Test match batsman and it was no surprise that he was sent packing at the earliest.
At this stage, India could have been rolled over and dismissed for less than 150. But Pujara (123, 2x6, 7x4) who batted out of his skin, and the determined Ravichandran Ashwin (25 off 76 balls) fought long and hard to add 62 runs for the seventh wicket in 25 overs.
The Saurashtra batsman might have saved his team the blushes (250 for 9 at stumps) but there’s no denying that a poor opening day has ensured that India will have to play out of their skin over the next four days to recover from Thursday’s unbelievable implosion.