India top order rolled after disastrous misjudgements
On paper, it loomed as scarcely a fair fight.
On his maiden tour to England with just seven Test matches under his belt, Scott Boland was tossed a near-new Dukes ball shortly before tea on day two of the World Test Championship Final against India who had started their first innings at a fearful clatter.
Four overs from Australia’s new-ball pair Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, as experienced in England conditions as they are masters of their craft, had bled 23 runs as India openers Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill made hay.
But it was to Boland that captain Cummins turned, upon deciding two overs from Starc was sufficient to suggest there was little on offer for the veteran left-armer, and it was time to check out the comparative new boy.
Given the disparities in their respective Test records to that point, the battle seemed heavily weighted in India’s favour.
After all, their top six batters between them boast 420 matches of Test experience and an aggregate of more than 27,000 runs, while on English turf alone that combined record showed 65 appearances for a return in excess of 3,700 runs.
By contrast, Boland’s only previous cricket experience in the UK came as a member of the Australia Indigenous touring party of 2018, with his sole outing at The Oval being a T20 match of that campaign when he closed out victory for his team against a Surrey XI using a white ball.
But not only did the 34-year-old slam the brakes on India’s runaway start by sending down 17 dot balls in his first three Test overs in England that cost just two runs, he snared his first offshore Test wicket with a delivery that defied not only Gill, but credulity.
Bowling his second over after Cummins had made Australia’s much-needed first breakthrough by dismissing Rohit, Boland went wide of the crease which deceived Gill who felt he could safely let the ball pass by without playing at it, only to watch the illuminated bails signal his departure.
It might have stunned the 23-year-old opener who has already made more than twice as many Test appearances as his Australia tormentor, but it was scarcely a revelation to Steve Smith who instinctively leapt in celebration at second slip as the broken stumps belatedly flashed danger.
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“I know from having faced Scotty in the nets recently he’s bowling very nicely,” Smith said at day’s end, having mastered the challenging Oval pitch to score 121 in Australia’s commanding first innings of 469.
“I think the angles he provides, and his ability to hit the stumps from slightly shorter (length) than some of our other bowlers is a big plus.
“It’s something that I think (fellow squad member Michael) Neser can do as well.
“Shorter guys are a bit skiddier so if there’s any seam movement it gives the ball more of a chance to move and still hit the stumps, if that makes sense.
“The skills he (Boland) possesses are magnificent.
“He’s certainly a quality prospect as we’ve seen over the last couple of years now, every time he’s had his opportunity.”
It’s been that capacity to deliver consistently remarkable results after debuting on his MCG home patch where Australia retained the Ashes in 2021-22 that has made the quietly spoken right-armer something of a reluctant cult hero.
The 6-7 he claimed in the second innings of that Test assumed instant folklore status, given Boland was purportedly identified under a ‘horses for courses’ selection philosophy the foresaw his suitability for bowling in Melbourne.
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He’s now emerged as a horse for pretty much every course, although he was only trotted out for the opening match of Australia’s four-Test tour of India earlier this year where spin became all-important on pitches purpose-made for that weapon.
The scope of India’s dominance in that Test at Nagpur meant they only batted once in their innings and 132-runs demolition, and Boland sent down just 17 overs.
That did not include locking horns with Gill (who had been overlooked in favour of fellow opener K L Rahul for that game) nor Virat Kohli, whose 26-ball innings of 12 at Nagpur came exclusively against the spin of Nathan Lyon and Todd Murphy.
But others in India’s line-up could claim previous batting knowledge against the immaculate seamer, and now attest to the fact he presents an altogether different challenge on well-grassed English pitches with the bowler-friendly Dukes brand ball in hand.
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As Smith pointed out, the length Australia’s bowlers zeroed in upon this afternoon as they reduced India’s vaunted top-order to 5-151 in just over a session fell neatly within Boland’s sweet spot.
“It’s just putting the ball in the right area more often than not, and owning that – I think it’s five and a half to seven-metre length – hitting the top of the stumps,” Smith said.
“There’s enough natural variation there in terms of up and down.
“We’ve obviously seen a bit of variable bounce, and then some seam movement.
“So we want to challenge the top of the stumps as much as possible, that’s the quickest way home.
“You can certainly get the outside edge if it seams away or bounces and takes off, which a couple have.
“And the pads or stumps are in play with the ones that shoot low or swing back, so that’s about as simple as we need to keep it I think.”
Boland’s 1-29 from 11 overs on day two – with the promise of increased returns over subsequent days of the WTC Final – was the most economical of the four-man pace attack, with all bowlers (including Lyon) sharing a wicket apiece.
But of broader significance might be the marker Boland has now set down for the five-Test Ashes series that immediately follows this game, as selectors weigh up the respective merits of the incumbent trio against auxiliary quicks Josh Hazlewood and Neser.
The case Hazlewood is mounting for a return to the starting XI in the Ashes opener at Edgbaston starting June 16 was obvious as he undertook running drills in front of The Oval pavilion during the day two lunch break.
However, the manner in which Boland slowed India’s scoring when called upon in the heat of his first battle in Britain suggested he might be the man to whom Cummins would like to turn if England’s blazing ‘Bazball’ batting manifests as expected in coming weeks.
Certainly his presence in Australia’s extended fast bowling blueprint has Smith comfortable in his earlier assertion that ‘Bazball’ faces it sternest test a year after its genesis, when the Ashes roll around.
“I think it will be different on this kind of wicket, that’s up and down and seaming around,” Smith said citing conditions for the current match at The Oval.
“It’s not easy to defend against let alone come out and swing.
“I said it initially when Bazball started, I’m intrigued to see how it goes against our bowlers.
“They (England) have obviously done well against some other attacks but they haven’t come up against us yet.
“It’s obviously been exciting to watch, I’ve enjoyed watching the way they play and the way they’ve turned things around in the last 12 months or so.
“But we’ll wait and see how it comes off against us.”
World Test Championship Final
June 7-11: Australia v India, The Oval
Australia squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey (wk), Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Josh Inglis (wk), Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Todd Murphy, Michael Neser, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc, David Warner