As the tenth day’s play in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2020/21 was getting underway, the series found itself perfectly in the balance. After sharing the spoils from the first two Tests, the teams had split the first two days at Sydney between them. Even before the first ball was bowled on Saturday, day three of the third Test had the makings of one that was likely to prove seismic – to the match, and potentially, the series itself.
Heading into day 11, India might not have 11 players to put out to bat – and before that time arrives, they might even have been batted well out of the contest.
A combination of factors made this, arguably, the most difficult day of the tour for the visitors; yes, there was 36 all out – but that was 90 minutes of shock and awe, 90 minutes of Murphy’s Law at its heightened best. This, however, was (almost) 90 overs of collapse and capitulation – of both bodies and spirits.
And, for the first two-thirds of the day, of Pat Cummins. Before dissecting any of the other pain-points from an Indian perspective, let’s hail the star – of Saturday’s show, of several recent Australian summers, and of the present Australian system.
A total of 64 rating points separate the world’s second-ranked Test bowler, Stuart Broad, from the tenth-placed James Anderson. Cummins, meanwhile, is 61 points clear of Broad atop the current ICC Test bowling rankings.
You didn’t need this day, or even this game, or this summer, to know that Cummins is operating, largely, in a league of his own even during this seemingly golden age for fast bowling. Since the start of 2018, no bowler has more Test wickets than Cummins’ 121; no one in the top-12 of that list is within two points of his surreal average of 19.33; only two bowlers with more than 50 wickets in this period have a better strike rate than his 43.2; only seven of those have a better economy than his 2.68.
Stretching the ambit to Tests since 2010, and with a minimum of 50 wickets, no bowler has a better average than Cummins’ 21.15, and only Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn have a better strike rate.
And when it comes to bowling in Australia, no bowler has more Test wickets at a better average than the 27-year-old (85 wickets at 20.55).
Still, if you’d been lying under a rock, or in a different universe, and only returned to this cricketing world for this Test, just this one innings would have told you a lot about Cummins and his craft.
Through India’s innings of 100.4 overs, over the course of Friday evening and Saturday morning, Cummins delivered four completed spells (plus four balls when he returned to scalp the last wicket). His figures, spell-by-spell, were: 7-3-12-0, 5-3-7-1, 5-2-5-1, 4-2-5-1. He finished with 4/29 from 21.4 overs.
The first three of those wickets were Shubman Gill, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara. Gill had scored at least 35 in each of his three innings so far, hardly looking new to the arena. Rahane was coming on the back off an exquisite match-winning hundred at Melbourne. And Pujara? This is a man who has faced nearly 1700 balls in the last two visits to Australia – averaging 140 balls per dismissal.
This series has been a clearly tougher grind for Pujara, his strike rate under 30 as compared to above 40 in 2018/19. But while he’s found the runs harder to come, it’s not as though he’s lost his touch as far as batting time is concerned, at least not when facing up to anyone not called Cummins. Against the rest of the Australian attack this series, Pujara’s tally reads 94/1 off 289 balls. Against Cummins? 19/4 off 129 balls. That’s right.
Since they’re known to hunt in pairs, fast bowlers often tend to get bunched together, especially when part of a conquering battery. So you hear of Bumrah-Shami-Ishant (aren’t India missing that!), and Boult-Southee-Wagner, and Anderson-Broad, and, of course, Cummins-Starc-Hazlewood.
But sample the averages of the Australian trinity since 2018, and you get further indication of Cummins’ own league: Cummins 19.33, Starc 25.63, Hazlewood 26.26.
Can India (not) catch a (body) break?
India started this series without Ishant Sharma, their best pace bowler of the last decade, and knew that they would be without Virat Kohli, their best batsman of the last decade, for 75% of the contest. By the end of the first Test, they had lost Mohammed Shami – eventually ruled out of the series with a wrist fracture. Halfway through the second Test, Umesh Yadav’s calf pulled up, and he was out of the series too.
Now, there are serious doubts over the participation of Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja any further in this game.
It was a bit of a wonder that this team regrouped well enough – from its absentees, and from 36 all out – to produce the remarkable show that they did at Melbourne.
At 180/4 going into lunch on day three at the SCG, they were in it. The task ahead was still momentous – India were still more than 150 behind Australia, and with the knowledge that they would be batting fourth – but India were in it.
Then came the second new ball, with two on-song exponents. Then came injuries to their numbers six and seven, both of whom perform multiple roles. In between, came a collapse of 6/49.
Cummins, collapse, capitulation. Melbourne was marvellous, but India are now firmly in the miracle territory. And even that may already be beyond them.
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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.
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Australia coach Justin Langer on Sunday called it a shame and one of his greatest "pet hates" after some spectators directed racial abuse at Indian players during the third Test and were expelled from the Sydney Cricket Ground for their behaviour.