The series of wildly fluctuating fortunes takes another turn.
Day one at Sydney, interrupted by rain, ended with Australia the far happier of the two teams – they had won the toss on a surface prone to gigantic first innings totals, against India’s most inexperienced pace attack to play a Test since 2014, and even had their run-smith back among the runs.
Many in India would have feared the worst as they got themselves out of bed at 4:30 am on Friday morning. Well, what did we know!
The scorecard will still show the batting side at two-down, but it’s a different ball-game going into day three at the SCG: India’s bowlers, yet again, worked wonder to trigger a dramatic collapse that saw Australia fold for 338, and India’s openers, in a rare occurrence, enjoyed a healthy association as the visitors ended on 96/2.
The headline acts from an engaging second day’s play in the third Test between Australia and India.
Smith, Sydney, India… It had to be
The first time he played against India at the SCG, in the New Year’s Test of 2015, Steven Smith scored 117 and 71. Less than three months later, at the same venue, he ended India’s reign as ODI world champions with a sublime century in the World Cup semi-final. At the start of India’s latest visit to Australia, Smith greeted them with back-to-back 62-ball hundreds to win the ODI series for the hosts.
Yet, strangely enough, the world’s hungriest accumulator of Test runs over the last decade had been going through a lean patch in his favoured format. He had been dismissed for three consecutive single-digit scores for the first time in more than five years. He had gone over three years, one of them ban-enforced, without a Test hundred on home soil. And he had gone 14 innings, home or away, without a Test hundred – his longest wait for one since he scored his maiden century, in August 2013.
You knew it was coming.
He’s just become the fastest man not called Don Bradman to reach 27 Test tons, so a Steven Smith hundred isn’t that big a deal. But what stood out – and this could be a potentially huge marker in the series – was the purpose with which he approached the bowling of Jasprit Bumrah and R Ashwin, his two conquerors in the first half of the series.
Coming into Sydney, Smith’s head-to-heads read 1/1 off 29 balls against Bumrah and 4/2 off 23 balls against Ashwin. At the SCG, he took 38 runs from 46 Bumrah deliveries and 28 from 51 bowled by Ashwin.
These may have been the easiest batting conditions on offer so far this Border-Gavaskar Trophy, but that’s a sea-change, irrespective – and one that could, over the next 10 days, dictate the course of the series.
‘I am inevitable’: Ravindra Jadeja, he does what he wants
Just that throw, alone, should stay ingrained in anyone’s memory for a long, long time.
Just this series, in which he’s only been involved for six days as of now, should serve as an indicator of his ability: match figures of 3/43 in 19.3 overs plus a patient 57 at Melbourne, followed by 4/62 in the first innings at Sydney.
Just this tour, of which he’s missed nearly half the games due to injury, should provide a picture of his prowess, across formats and roles. Before his recent Test match heroics, he was one-half of the partnership responsible for India’s only win in the ODIs, and one-half of the joint-act (forced by concussion) responsible for India’s victory in the opening T20I – both games that were threatening to be out of India’s reach when he walked out to bat.
The jury could still be out on his role in the white-ball formats, but if we’re talking Test cricket, Ravindra Jadeja ought to be inevitable in the Indian setup.
Since 2018, he averages 53.57 with the bat – with eight 50+ scores in 20 innings – and 26.07 with the ball in Tests. Stretching the timeframe to the last five years, he still holds a batting average of 45.40 and a bowling average of 24.57.
If a comparison is your favoured yardstick, chew on this. Since the start of 2016, there are 25 players with both 500+ runs and 25+ wickets in Tests. Sorted by the difference between their batting and bowling average – widely regarded as the truest metric of an all-rounder’s ability – here is the top-five:
Ravindra Jadeja: 1453 runs @ 45.40, 152 wickets @ 24.57; Avg. Diff. 20.83
Ben Stokes: 3430 runs @ 42.34, 112 wickets @ 27.59; Avg. Diff. 14.74
Shakib Al Hasan: 1039 runs @ 38.48, 63 wickets @ 26.03; Avg. Diff. 12.44
Jason Holder: 1570 runs @ 33.40, 95 wickets @ 25.66; Avg. Diff. 7.74
Colin de Grandhomme: 1185 runs @ 37.03, 47 wickets @ 31.63; Avg. Diff. 5.39
Now imagine a world where we had equitable metrics for fielding as well, and imagine where India’s number seven would stand.
Wade’s brain-fade, Bumrah’s new-ball bite
206/2 to 338 all out. It jumps out to you from a glance at the Australian scorecard, as a collapse of 132/8 in 35 overs should.
But even after the fall of Marcus Labuschagne, Australia were not in trouble, by any means. Smith was in flow, untroubled by either of the Indian spinners, while Matthew Wade had made a busy start and was looking to take on Jadeja in particular. The fourth-wicket partnership had accrued 26 runs in 5.5 overs.
But Wade, just as he did in Melbourne, fell to his own approach, trying to go too hard against spin. For the second straight game, although from a different spot in the batting order this time, an ungainly attempt to clear the in-field resulted in Wade skying one to mid-on.
It wasn’t just the timing on the shot that was off; the second new ball was barely three overs away, and now there was going to be a new man in to face it. India lapped up the opportunity, as soon as it presented itself.
Bumrah’s first five overs with the second cherry, either side of the lunch break, sent Cameron Green and Tim Paine back to the hut, while costing only four runs.
Aided by a Mitchell Starc cameo, Smith did well to add 60 runs with his last three partners. But Australia, who had scores of 454, 538/8 and 572/7 the last three times they had batted first at the SCG, had folded for 338 – after opting to bat against a side playing its sixth - and seventh-choice fast bowlers.
Rohit-Gill: Rare joy for Indian openers at sea
At the onset, let’s not have any illusions about the nature of the surface – this has been, by far, the best batting conditions on offer so far this series. So regardless of who your favoured player(s) is/are, you have to feel for Mayank Agarwal – whose first patch of two successive failed games was enough to lose him his spot in the XI.
But to go from 23 runs in 8.5 overs from four stands combined to 70 runs in 27 overs meant India were on rarefound ground as far as opening fortunes were concerned.
Rohit Sharma – playing his first Test since November 2019, and his first as opener away from home – and Shubman Gill – still only two innings old in Test cricket – may have benefitted from friendly conditions and friendlier lines-and-lengths from the Australian quicks, but for most of their stay, they cruised. And the sight of two Indian openers who love to pull the ball, well… wasn’t that something!
It was India’s highest and longest opening partnership in Australia since Aakash Chopra and Virender Sehwag shared century stands at both Melbourne and Sydney in 2003/04. It was also India’s longest opening stand outside Asia since December 2010 – it had been 92 innings since an Indian opening pair lasted 20 overs away from the subcontinent.
No Asian team has had it as bad in SENA countries since the start of 2011: Sri Lanka have had eight opening stands lasting more than 20 overs, Pakistan three and Bangladesh two.
Rohit and Gill will face far sterner challenges if they are to play more Tests together, which would appear likely at the moment. For the sake of India’s long-running woes, you’d hope well begun is half done!
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"The Queensland government is fully entitled to protect its people. Similarly, I believe the BCCI is fully entitled to protect its team. I think that's something we should never forget," Gavaskar said during commentary on Channel 7.
Pujara scored 50 off 176 balls as his slow batting helped Australia gain complete control of the third Test with an overall lead of 197 runs.
Mohammed Siraj is the find of the series and he was the most impressive of all. He had suffered a lot before shining the brightest.