Sydney: It is halfway through the middle session on the third day. The humidity was unbearable and the temperatures were approaching 40 degrees. It felt more like Chennai than Sydney.
In the middle, the fields set by India made it difficult to comprehend where the next runs will come from for Australia. Mohammed Shami, bowling with the old ball to Travis Head, had five men stationed on the leg-side. The man at fine-leg was the only person patrolling the boundary; the rest formed an arc from leg-gully to mid on. Repeatedly, Shami zeroed in on the stumps, the only option for the batsmen was to either thread the needle through the leg-side field or play a fine leg glance.
Shami offered nothing outside off-stump, Head got a few easy picking on the pads, but Chesteshwar Pujara at leg gully and Hanuma Vihari at square leg ensured they kept blocking the single. It was India's way to tighten the noose and prevent runs. Last night, Tim Paine had stated in the press conference that the plans and the fields that India had implemented were at times difficult to extricate. This was that tough period.
For six overs, Peter Handscomb and Head could only manage nine runs. Shami had done the job and Kohli immediately realised it was time to dangle the carrot and induce scoring opportunities via Kuldeep Yadav. The minute Kuldeep gave the ball a bit of air, Head advanced, the ball dipped and at the end, the Australian No 6 ended up tapping a full-toss back to the bowler. The choke had worked. India had managed to conjure up another wicket.
Kohli needs a fair bit of credit how he planned the day from the outset. He had read the conditions perfectly. By the time Jasprit Bumrah had delivered his first over of the third day, the temperature had already crossed 35 degrees. Virat Kohli knew it was going to be hard toil for his seamers, so to preserve their energies, he turned to Ravindra Jadeja in the sixth over of the day. Six boundaries were hit in next four overs, as Harris and Khawaja attacked both Shami and Jadeja.
Australia's plan was imminent. Attack the spinners and make Kohli bring back his two quicks. The plan was right, but at the same time, Kohli would have known that with one new batsman at the crease, he could strangle the inexperienced Australian batting. Khawaja's wild swing across the line from Kuldeep gave India the opening they needed.
Perhaps it was the nature of the docile pitch that had led to such fields, but Virat Kohli also deserves credit. The Indian skipper has been criticised in recent times about his strategy in the field, but on a benign pitch, he knew exactly what had to be done to create an opportunity. He constantly spoke with the fast bowlers and spinners. The idea was simple: Place in-out fields and play on the virtue of patience. He urged them to make the batsmen drive.
Generally, a fatigued fast bowler is likely to err on the short side rather than full. Through the extreme heat, Shami or Jasprit Bumrah hardly banged the ball into the surface. If they did, it was on the line of the stumps and had enough protection. Whenever they did slip it on the fuller side, men stationed in the covers and the midwicket region meant the batsmen had to be precise to find the ropes.
The first 14 boundaries India conceded during the day were either on half volleys or full balls angling towards leg-side. It might seem a lot, but when a team has posted 622 in the first innings, the captain can afford to give away a few runs for a wicket.
Kohli was willing to gamble; he wanted his fast bowlers and spinners to induce the drives. This was the only way he felt India could take wickets. It was a pitch that didn't need too many innovations, but one specific plan. Indian fast bowlers executed it brilliantly and Kohli ensured they had the backing throughout the day.
After all, this was a bowling unit that was missing its leader in Ishant Sharma and also Ravichandran Ashwin. Fast bowlers Shami and Bumrah had bowled more than 200 overs each in the series and Jadeja had no prominent footmarks to bowl into. The only 'X' factor Kohli had up his sleeve was Kuldeep, so it was important to use him sparingly.
The fact that India didn't introduce a fifth bowler and still managed to pick up six wickets on a batting-friendly surface is a testament to their skills and Kohli's captaincy. For a while now, the India attack has looked ruthless on a pitch that has aided seam or swing, but in Sydney, they have shown that they have can adopt different strategies and still rout an opposition.