It was the least experienced attack in terms of Test wickets that Australia have faced since 1880. The two debutants in T Natarajan and Washington Sundar were accompanied by Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Siraj, and Navdeep Saini.
Natarajan wasn’t even in the original squad to Australia and was only drafted in after Varun Chakravarthy withdrew from the T20 squad due to an injury. Sundar was kept behind for the Test series because they wanted an off-spinner to bowl to the batsmen in the practice sessions to prepare for Nathan Lyon.
At the Gabba, Sundar was India’s premier spinner and Natarajan took the new ball. Their performance and effort could not be doubted. By stumps, both had their maiden Test wickets and will relish the day forever.
Both first gamers stuck to the plans diligently. Sundar, a product of white-ball cricket, was given a specific role. He had to bowl on the line of the leg-stump to the right-handers with a packed leg-side field. No experimentation was required, just a simple game plan. The strategy led to the downfall of Steve Smith. But after an economical 10 overs in which he conceded just 18 runs, he started to err in line and length. Sundar’s inexperience, lack of bowling in the longer format, and the pressure of the situation finally started to unravel.
Natarajan started with a couple of no-balls before settling into a good rhythm. He swung the ball. He changed his angle cleverly and made scoring difficult for the batsmen. Importantly, he lured Matthew Wade and Marnus Labuschangne into false pull strokes to swing the momentum back in India’s favour.
Natarajan's selection was turning into a masterstroke, but late in the day, with the second new ball, his pace dropped significantly. One could sense there was fatigue – both mental and physical. Seasoned campaigners find that extra yard later in the day, but this was Natarajan, the wily craftsman that shouldn’t even have been in Australia right now, but could still walk off with his head held high.
Then there was Shardul Thakur. He had arguably bowled more overs in first-class cricket than any of his peers. Thakur had only lasted 11 balls in his Test debut and finished the day looking sore and rigid. Thakur has sent down more balls in the nets on this tour than any other bowler. But Brisbane was his reward for all the hard work.
It started perfectly with a wicket off his first ball, but it slowly started to go downhill from there. By no means was he poor, but one could sense he would have lured more Australian batsmen to play at his outswingers had there been a Ravichandran Ashwin or a Jasprit Bumrah bowling from the other end. To Thakur’s credit, he persisted with the outswingers, but as the day wore on, the Australian batsmen started piercing them through the covers.
Playing in his second game, Saini’s day ended in a Brisbane hospital where he was taken for scans for a groin injury. Saini was supposed to be the enforcer of the attack. He was the quickest of the lot. Without him, India lacked penetration. On a pitch that had a bit of bounce, the Indian attack rarely bowled any bouncers. The lack of short bowling was a lot to do with Saini’s absence. The pacer from Haryana will learn playing back to back Tests is not an easy task.
As strange as it may sound, Mohammed Siraj was the leader of the pack. He knocked over David Warner early and laid the platform for his lesser experienced teammates. Siraj was superb with his control for most of his spells apart from one. Coincidently, it was that one spell after lunch that allowed Australia to gain some momentum via the partnership between Wade and Labuschagne. To his credit, Siraj was once again splendid with the second new ball. But by the time he had the second new cherry, he had started to run out of partners.
The flat nature of the pitch along with the heat only made things harder for the Indian bowlers. Add to that the plan of attack on the Brisbane pitch had changed from the line the Indian bowlers had persisted with for the first three Tests. No longer were the fast bowlers asked to target the stumps, instead, they had to operate on the fifth or sixth stump line. It was a strategic decision based on the pace of the pitch.
Despite the lack of Test experience, all bowlers did an admirable job. Taking five wickets on a placid Gabba pitch was a terrific effort, but as they discovered during the day, it only gets tougher with each spell in Test cricket.
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