Whether Matthew Wade should have gone for that shot is a topic for another discussion, but the defining moment of the day came immediately after that. Shubman Gill, from mid-wicket, and Ravindra Jadeja, from mid-on, both went for the catch. There were two imminent threats – of a collision (or of Jadeja stepping on a diving Gill), resulting in more casualties to an already depleted side; and a spilled catch.
Jadeja is arguably the finest fielder in contemporary cricket, but his superlative fielding skills have seldom been tested in Test cricket, for he rarely fields in the slips or around the bat. But this was his territory, and he made sure it was taken cleanly, without causing physical harm to Gill or himself.
That set the trend for the day. The Indian fielders, who have dropped crucial chances both in the IPL and on the ongoing tour, seemed a changed unit. Cheteshwar Pujara’s catch at leg gully to dismiss Steven Smith for a duck (Smith out for a duck against India!) was not easy, and Ajinkya Rahane’s diving catch at, approximately, fourth slip that got Travis Head was even better.
Then came a special moment, when the debutants combined to dismiss Marnus Labuschagne. Mohammed Siraj had already pinged Labuschagne on the helmet; he now followed the plan laid out for him. Had Siraj bowled from closer to the stumps, Labuschagne might have played it fine – he had done that earlier in the day – but this time it flew closer to leg gully – and Gill took a diving catch. Then Hanuma Vihari followed with a sharp catch at leg slip to send Tim Paine back.
The ghosts of Adelaide Oval, where dropped chances might have (or might not have) altered the course of the Test match, had been exorcised.
Australia were 155/7 at this point, and that included a partnership of 86 and a close appeal for run out that went against India. The Indian bowlers attack bowled well, but they had done that during the first innings at Adelaide as well.
Now, with the fielders joining the fray, the unit looked hostile enough to take on any side despite the absence of Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami – though it cannot be denied that Australia were likely to have scored less had they been in the side.
Fittingly, two of the last three wickets fell to catches as well. While neither was difficult, India had let go easier chances at Adelaide. Siraj held both catches, which meant that Gill, Siraj, Jadeja, and Rishabh Pant – the four replacements – all took at least one catch in the day.
But that should not take the sheen off the bowlers, especially Jasprit Bumrah and R Ashwin. Bumrah bowled an excellent spell first up, beating Joe Burns and Wade multiple times before snaring the former. Curiously, Rahane did not opt for him immediately after lunch, allowing Labuschagne and Head to grow in confidence. When recalled, Bumrah picked up three wickets across spells.
Barring that, however, Rahane was spot on with his bowling changes. That the pitch was going to yield steep bounce became obvious within the first half an hour. The obvious temptation would have been to bring on Siraj first change, but Rahane backed Ashwin’s skills and experience. Ashwin responded with two wickets in 15 balls, and never looked back.
Ashwin had picked up a wicket more at Adelaide, but this was probably the better of the two spells. While his duels with Head and Labuschagne did not yield immediate wickets, he kept probing, never compromising on accuracy, varying his flight and pace almost at will.
Labuschagne tried to sweep his way out; it took him a referral to get that leg-before decision undone. He nearly perished in Ashwin’s next over, when the ball dropped just before short leg. It took ten overs of claustrophobia-inducing accuracy from Siraj and Ashwin to induce the stroke towards leg gully that Gill held on to.
By tea Ashwin was – somewhat against expectations – obtaining turn on a first-day Melbourne strip. He finished with figures of 24-7-35-3. All three wickets were batsmen from the top seven. To provide perspective to his economy rate of 1.46, his teammates combined to concede 3.09 an over across 48.3 overs.
But in the end, while the support cast had been efficient, they did not exceed their roles as support cast for Bumrah and Ashwin. India missed at least one of, if not both, Ishant and Shami on a pitch where they could have wreaked havoc. Australia could not cut loose, but neither were they under constant pressure for survival at the crease.
Unlike their Indian counterparts, the Australians are unlikely to allow respite, for there seems to be no weak bowler in their attack – as they have demonstrated before and throughout the series. Remember, India are one specialist batsman short. Of the ones in the side, Gill is a debutant, Mayank Agarwal has been dismissed, Vihari is yet to secure his place in the side, and Rahane himself is due a big score.
It is going to be an uphill task for the Indians against one of the greatest bowling attacks of all time.
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
The jibes were directed at pacers Mohammed Siraj and Jasprit Bumrah on the third and fourth days of the match and six fans were thrown out of the stadium after the Indian team complained to the umpires.
Langer said the fightback after the Adelaide debacle was nothing short of remarkable especially after injury-forced ouster of big players like Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja.
Siraj and his senior pace colleague Jasprit Bumrah faced racial abuse for two days at the Sydney Cricket Ground, forcing the Indian team management to lodge an official complaint with match referee David Boon. Cricket Australia later offered an unreserved apology for the incidents.