India top order rolled after disastrous misjudgements
The contrasting positions of the rival teams in the World Test Championship Final was neatly encapsulated by the sight of a couple of India’s foremost batters surrendering their wickets quite literally without firing a shot.
After Australia piled on 469 across more than 121 overs in their first innings at The Oval, India limped to 5-151 in reply at the close of day two as they became the first team in Tests to have all top four batters reach double figures without any topping 20.
But it was the sight of opener Shubman Gill and number three Cheteshwar Pujara having their stumps rattled while offering no shot to Scott Boland and Cameron Green respectively that best illustrated their disarray on a pitch that continues to challenge with seam movement and some variable bounce.
Australia’s position might have been even more impregnable but for a costly oversight – or more exactly, overstep – from Cummins that robbed his team of the wicket of the last of India’s big five batters, Ajinkya Rahane.
With his team on the ropes at 4-87 heading into the day’s final hour, Rahane was pinned on the front pad by a ball from Cummins that seamed past the outside edge and umpire Richard Illingworth immediately upheld the beseeching appeal.
The fact Rahane belatedly called for a review indicated he had not made prior contact, and seemed an act of pure hope until footage showed Cummins’ heal marginally beyond the front line, prompting hoots of joy from the India fans and frustration for Australia.
Come stumps, Rahane remained unbeaten on 29 and his team’s best hope of making a significant impression on the deficit that stands at 318.
Until that pivotal moment, pretty much everything Cummins had orchestrated in his team’s bowling innings had come up trumps.
With the exception of Mitchell Starc’s opening two-over spell that cost 14 runs as the left-armer went looking for new-ball swing that never manifested, everything fell into place after India’s openers throttled back from their blazing start.
Cummins landed the first heavyweight blow, trapping his captaincy counterpart Rohit Sharma plumb in front with the final ball of his third over, a decision so straightforward Rohit barely contemplated a review as he trudged from the suddenly becalmed Oval.
The decision to spell Starc after his early profligacy and replace him with Boland proved a masterstroke as the seam-bowling cult hero surprised nobody by completing a maiden from his first Test over in England and then amazed everyone with the ball that toppled Gill.
Certainly the India opener had no clue as to what had hit him, or his stumps, when he shouldered arms to a delivery that was angled in from over the wicket but then jagged back even further to land a second punch without a run being added.
India went to tea with wheels wobbling after a high-octane start, with their predicament even more dire immediately after the break when Cummins deployed allrounder Green.
Green had spent much of that 20-minute interval bowling on one of the practice pitches on the edge of The Oval’s expansive wicket block, but clearly Pujara was not studying from his vantage point in the India dressing room 200 metres away.
After punching a classy boundary through point in Green’s opening over, the batter renowned for placing a higher price on his wicket than the stroke-makers who surround him in India’s top order, inexplicably made no offering to a ball that ripped back from outside off to take the pegs.
Green’s delight was obvious in the skyward leap he executed as India slumped to 3-50, which was only outdone by Steve Smith’s effort at second slip four overs later when he launched himself like an Australian rules full-forward to claim the scalp of Kohli.
The former India captain had been circumspect in his 56-minute stay and was fortunate not to record a duck having inside-edged the fourth ball he faced from Cummins narrowly past his stumps to get off the mark.
But soon after giving indication he was into stride with a sweetly timed off-drive for four when Starc started his second spell, he copped a brutal ball from the same bowler that flew from a length and compelled Kohli to fend with the resultant catch hauled in by a delighted Smith.
The pall that descended upon the India fans whipped into euphoria as Australia wickets tumbled earlier in the afternoon was lifted briefly as Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja counter-punched with a fifth-wicket stand of 71 from 100 balls.
That union included the never-before witnessed spectacle of Boland being hit for six in a Test, as Jadeja whipped the usually parsimonious pacemen off his pads and over the rope at square leg.
But when Cummins pulled another masterstroke by deploying Nathan Lyon in the day’s final hour, and he again combined with Smith to remove Jadeja in a classic off-spinner’s dismissal – further highlighting India’s oversight in not selecting their top-ranked offie Ravichandran Ashwin – Australia were clearly in command.
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Only once in 143 years of Test matches at The Oval has a team posted a first innings score higher than Australia’s 464 and lost the match, with South Africa owning that unfortunate history morsel by somehow losing to England by nine wickets in 2003 after scoring 484.
And in contrast to India’s current position, England’s first five wickets put on 480 in that remarkable reply of 9(dec)-604.
But having resumed today amid brilliant sunshine and not-quite-so lustrous opposition bowling, Cummins’ men might feel they let slip an opportunity to push past 500 and – from a historical perspective, at least – quarantine themselves from defeat.
And if Mohammed Siraj’s first few deliveries of day two provided a blueprint of the attack plan to follow, Australia might have conceivably been eyeing 750.
With Smith starting afresh on 95 and – even allowing for the reality he had reached 100 in Tests 30 pervious times – presumably scratchy if not skittish, Siraj served up a couple of lukewarm puddings almost as a gift.
Both half volleys on Smith’s pads were gratefully whipped to the midwicket rope, with the second setting off a matter-of-fact celebration from the former Australia captain that suggested his day was only just beginning.
However, Siraj quickly found his competitiveness if not fully his control and, when Smith pulled out of his stance with the paceman midway through his approach for the next delivery, Siraj angrily flung the ball at the unprotected stumps.
The fact he not only missed but the ball also eluded ‘keeper K S Bharat and rolled almost to boundary for the third time in just two legal deliveries seemed a suitable metaphor for India’s spluttering start to the second day.
But Siraj and Shami soon got into their work, which entailed redoubling the short-pitched bowling strategy they aimed at Head the previous evening, and it caused the left-hander more than a few concerns.
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While Head mixed blazing counter-attack with uncomfortable evasion and surged past 150, adding a further three boundaries to his overnight total of 22, Siraj ultimately got his man in the manner he expected with a gloved catch coming from a fend off the hip.
Green gave the impression he hadn’t quite adapted to Test mode after his bountiful IPL stint not long finished, striking a four from the first ball he faced and perishing in his search for a second from the seventh that was smartly caught by Gill at second slip.
Through all this activity, Smith remained unfazed until proving even the most infallible of batters are vulnerable when concentration momentarily lapses.
In Smith’s case, it was the introduction of India’s fourth seamer Shardul Thakur immediately after the first drinks break that brought him undone.
Thakur’s opening delivery was a rank loosener that pitched short of a length half a metre outside off stump, but at which Smith chose to play a half-hearted defensive push rather than watch it sail benignly past.
Neither he nor Shakur could quite believe it when the innocuous ball rebounded from Smith’s previously impenetrable blade on to the stumps, illuminating the red flashing ‘zing’ bails for the first time in almost 100 overs of cricket in this match.
They may also have signalled a warning for Australia who had surrendered three top-order wickets for the addition of 60 runs in barely an hour’s play.
Sensing they were suddenly back in a contest that seemed almost out of reach at stumps on day one, India’s bowlers found new purpose and – for the first time since yesterday’s opening session – had their quarry on the back foot.
The mounting pressure brought an error of judgement of Starc who pushed a delivery from Siraj to the left of mid-off and called immediately for a tight single, perhaps not realising the fielder in wait was left-handed substitute Axar Patel who executed a deft direct hit.
Heading to lunch 7-422, Australia were realistically at risk of being bowled out below 450 but a 51-run stand between Alex Carey and Cummins put paid to that threat.
However, Carey went for 48 in now familiar fashion when an attempted reverse sweep against Jadeja yielded no contact from bat, glove or front pad but instead struck him on the protector which, in addition to its primary function, was positioned in front of the stumps.
The breakthrough came just one ball after Carey had lifted Jadeja beyond the mid-on boundary for six, and may have been the result of a fielder immediately dropping back to the rope and Australia’s keeper trying to manipulate the recast field.
But it also represented the seventh consecutive innings against India in which Carey has succumbed to spin, with the reverse sweep – attempted on 16 occasions across those innings – accounting for four of those dismissals.
It heralded the end of Australia’s impressive batting effort as the final three wickets tumbled for 16 runs in less than seven overs, although not before Nathan Lyon provided a graphic illustration of what awaited India’s star-strewn top-order.
The tenth delivery Lyon faced in his 25-ball stay brought a stroke the card-carrying tailender will likely dine out on for many a day – a back-foot punch-drive against seamer Umesh Yadav that positively scorched to the extra cover rope.
However, Lyon had no answer to the bowler’s reply which pitched in not dissimilar territory only to stay low and thud into the bemused batter’s front pad below, prompting a prolonged (if unsuccessful) lbw shout and a prudent reminder of the perils of batting on this occasionally ornery track.
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