For the fourth straight occasion, India’s first Test of a new year has seen the involvement of rain. Cape Town 2018, Sydney 2019 and Wellington 2020 had all seen sizeable passages of play – if not entire days altogether – washed out, and barely half an hour into the opening morning at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the heavens above came into play again.
Fortunately though, a session (and a bit) was all that was lost to the Sydney rain on Thursday, and we were able to see 55 overs of action. In them, we saw shades of the recent trend of India-Australia Tests – neither side has won back-to-back matches in the last three editions of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, and on the evidence of the first day’s play, Australia have made the stronger start after having been outplayed at Melbourne to close out 2020.
Given the nature of the last few series between these teams, it would be naive to think too far ahead; but all factors considered, India will know they have some clawing back to do when they step out at the SCG on day two.
The talking points from day one of the third Test between Australia and India.
A rare Sydney slip-up for Warner
101, 4, 122*, 113, 55, 56, 45, 111*. These were David Warner’s scores in Tests at the SCG since 2015 – an average above 100, a strike rate touching 90. Playing his first Test in a year, Warner couldn’t have picked a better venue to make a return from injury.
But it wasn’t to be for the Australian opener. There was an ungainly swipe and miss on the seventh delivery he faced. A repeat attempt the very next ball caught the edge, and Mohammed Siraj had given India the early strike.
It continued a spate of deflating starts for either side: with the exception of the fourth innings at Adelaide, where Australia had only 90 runs to chase down, the highest opening partnership so far this series has been worth 16 runs.
Pucovski rides his luck, and pluck
Statistically, there is no better team to debut against than India – no team has conceded more 50+ scores to Test debutants in the 21st century. And with two dropped catches (more on that later) and a missed run-out in the space of half an hour, India were being even more benevolent than usual to Will Pucovski.
But Pucovski had earned his maiden baggy green cap – a first-class average of 54.50 after 23 matches – and on Thursday, despite India’s generosity, he earned his half-century too. In a series where openers have largely looked all at sea, the 22-year-old stood out with his composure, even after losing his senior partner early on.
Despite his offerings later on, Pucovski had actually led a chanceless life for the first 20 overs of his maiden outing; impressively, he didn’t cower down and go into a shell after those reprieves either.
It might have the easiest batting conditions so far in the series, especially as far as the new ball was concerned, but quite like India’s debutant opener from the second Test, Pucovski was a calming influence for his team.
Pant, oh dear Pant
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) January 7, 2021
Indian cricket’s discourse with respect to its Test wicket-keeper(s) is a frustratingly predictable place to be around these days: if Saha plays and doesn’t make runs, everyone wants Pant in; if Pant plays and drops catches, everyone wants Saha in.
Let’s steer clear of the (unending) debate and keep ourselves to the data.
Of all wicket-keepers to have played at least 10 Tests since the start of 2018, no one averages more dropped catches per match than Rishabh Pant. When keeping to spinners in Tests, Pant has taken nine catches – and dropped seven.
For India’s sake, one would hope Pant also turns up his kind of batting stats later in this Test, like he did last time around at Sydney (the first century by an Indian wicket-keeper in a Test in Australia, the second-highest score by any visiting wicket-keeper in a Test in Australia, the third-highest score by any Indian wicket-keeper in Test history).
And then the discourse can continue in its infinite loop…
Flat SCG surface aids return of ‘intent’
It’s most commonly linked to post-match reactions from the Indian camp, but in the aftermath of the MCG Test, ‘intent’ was a widely-used word by Australian pundits.
It came with its reasoning. Australia’s second innings at Melbourne was their slowest innings of 100+ overs in a home Test since 1970. Their scoring rate at the end of the second Test – 2.52 runs per over – was, by some distance, their slowest for any home series since 2000. For wider perspective, Australia have scored at less than 2.97 per over in only two out of 39 Test series at home in this period – the only other instance being the previous series against India, in 2018/19, where they went at 2.64 per over.
A slight change in approach, hence, was always on the cards, and the track on offer at the SCG only abetted that shift. According to CricViz, this was the easiest first day surface for batting in Australia in seven years; subsequently, day one at the SCG was the first day so far this series to see less than 10% false shots.
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) January 7, 2021
Beware, India: Smith’s on a hunt
Nowhere was the difference in intent more apparent than in Steven Smith’s batting – especially while facing up to one particular adversary.
“I’ve sort of let him dictate terms and that’s something I’ve probably never let any spinner do in my career,” Smith said at the end of the second Test, when asked about his duel with Ravichandran Ashwin. Halfway through the series, India’s premier spinner had dismissed the world’s premier Test cricketer of the last decade twice in 23 balls, conceding only four runs.
“I probably would’ve liked to have put him under a bit more pressure,” Smith added.
At Sydney, unlike Melbourne, Smith didn’t have to face Ashwin right at the start of his innings. When the battle did eventually resume, the Australian took only five balls to unleash his first boundary off Ashwin this series – a whipped flick through midwicket. The next Ashwin ball he faced, Smith lofted one over mid-on for another four. Shortly thereafter, mid-on had been moved back to long-on, something we hadn’t witnessed so far through the first two volumes of this absorbing Smith-versus-Ashwin contest.
Smith and Sydney is a combination that has haunted India’s recent past: 117 and 71 in the New Year’s Test of 2015, a sublime century in the semi-final of the 2015 World Cup, and back-to-back 62-ball hundreds in the ODIs just over a month ago.
To give the context of this series a tennis spin, Smith has responded to going two sets down in a flash by taking an early break of serve in the third. How this ‘set’ ends is likely to have an enormous bearing on the course this riveting series takes from here on.
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India, after conceding a 33-run first innings lead, bundled out Australia for 294, with pacers Mohammed Siraj (5/73) and Shardul Thakur (4/61) doing the bulk of the damage.
Smith has faced accusations he had been trying to cheat by scuffing up batsman Rishabh Pant's guard at the crease during the tense drawn third Test at Sydney, which left the series locked at 1-1.
India chased down a mammoth target of 328, with Pant playing a key role with his 138-ball unbeaten knock to hand his side a 2-1 series win and Australia their first defeat in 32 years at the Gabba.