India 36 for 1 (Gill 28*, Pujara 7*) trail Australia 195 (Labuschagne 48, Bumrah 4-56, Ashwin 3-35) by 159 runs
India’s bowlers did all that could be asked of them on the opening day of the Boxing Day Test as they removed Australia for 195 led by Jasprit Bumrah, R Ashwin and a superb debut by Mohammed Siraj with the home side unable to post a half-century between them.
Faced with just under an hour to bat at the end of the day, and the 36 all out still fresh in the memory, a thunderous first over from Mitchell Starc – among the finest you will see to start an innings – concluded with Mayank Agarwal being pinned lbw having done well to survive the first five deliveries.
Even with just 27,615 spectators (itself a triumph for many reasons) the ground reverberated to the excitement of what could be about to unfold, but debutant Shubman Gill and the experienced Cheteshwar Pujara took the sting out of the mini session – aided by Gill being dropped on 4 at slip by Marnus Labuschagne – to the extent that they scored at three-and-a-half an over.
Australia’s total followed their 191 first innings in Adelaide as ball continued rule in the early stages of the series, the opening day of this Test coming on an MCG surface that offered more encouragement than any in recent memory. Those planning to attend the fourth day will be a touch nervous.
Bumrah was excellent throughout, Ashwin got the better of Steven Smith for the second time in the series (Smith’s first Test duck in four years) and Siraj, filling the shoes of Mohammed Shami, bowled with pace and movement, his second spell reading 9-4-16-2 including a classic working over of fellow Test rookie Cameron Green.
Ashwin was outstanding, both holding the scoring rate – he conceded just 1.46 runs per over – and claiming three of the top seven having been introduced in the 11th over by stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane who was another to have an impressive day both with bowling and fielding tactics. The dismissals of Smith, Labuschagne and Travis Head were all perfectly executed plans.
The opening wicket of the day was also a working over as Joe Burns battled outside off stump before getting a thin edge against Bumrah in the fifth over. While he was far from alone in struggling, if David Warner returns for the third Test somebody will have to stand aside and it may need another show of faith from the selectors.
Briefly it looked as though Matthew Wade would add more pressure onto the debate as he dominated the early scoring with crisp, confident driving of the type Warner excels at, but he undid the good work on the stroke of drinks when he tried to launch Ashwin over the leg side. However, the dismissal owed everything to the fielding brilliance of Ravindra Jadeja who held onto the catch over his shoulder despite a near collision with Gill, and after taking the ball was still able to avoid trampling his team-mate.
Smith laboured 29 balls for 1 in the first innings in Adelaide but was unable to get off the mark this time when he glanced a delivery off his pads to Pujara at leg slip who held a sharp chance. The hands he found with such dramatic effect in the one-day series a few weeks ago have momentarily gone missing. Australia were 38 for 3.
For 28 overs either side of lunch, Labuschagne and Head did a solid repair job although Labuschagne looked for all the world to have gone lbw on 26 when he was sweeping Ashwin only for the ball-tracker to show the delivery clearing the stumps. There were signs that the initial storm had been weathered when Head, especially, started to find scoring a little easier but it proved an illusion.
Rahane had opted not to bring Bumrah back when it looked a prime moment for the strike bowler, but when he did the impact was not long in coming as, in an over that included two no-balls, he found Head’s outside edge from an around-the-wicket line which has often troubled the left-hand batsman and the captain took a sharp catch around fourth slip.
Labuschagne has scored useful runs this series but has not looked as settled as his prolific 2019-2020 summer and has certainly had to work harder for them. The scoring seized up against the accuracy of Ashwin and Siraj with 10 runs in eight overs before Labuschagne clipped Siraj towards leg gully where fellow debutant Gill continued India’s good catching day.
It was clear Tim Paine, who survived a borderline run out on 6 when he was saved by a missing frame, wanted to provide more urgency, but it was a struggle for Green who kept hitting the field and he fell to a perfect set up. Siraj sent down a series of outswingers before bringing one back into Green’s pads. The control and precision of the dismissal from Siraj capped a superb first day for him in Test cricket.
Australia’s hopes of counterattacking were hit further in the next over when Paine became the latest to be caught behind square, turning Ashwin to leg slip. Without their captain to marshal them as he did in Adelaide, it was a tall order for the last three wickets to be expected to lift the total too far, but Nathan Lyon’s bludgeoned 20 took them to the brink of 200.
The possibilities generated by Starc’s early response had dissipated a little by the close, but India’s batting line-up should face their own stern examination tomorrow. Their hopes in the series could rest on how they come through.
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