After winning the toss and batting first, Australia threatened to repeat their MCG shenanigans, yet level-headed, dominant displays from the trio of Pucovski, Labuschagne and Smith ensured the hosts edged ahead on Day 1. India, uncharacteristically, though, were not at their usual disciplined self.
Turns out, playing a half-fit David Warner wasn’t a good idea
They said he would change the dynamic of the top-order, the game and the entire series. They said he would take on the Indian bowlers and show intent. They said he would be a menace if he is 80% fit and they pretty much said that a one-legged David Warner was better than Joe Burns, at least at home. For 6 deliveries this narrative held up: Warner punched his first ball in front of square with confidence and looked to be in the mood. Though he was hobbling whilst running, you could sense that oomph.
But just when you thought Langer, Paine and the Aussie press were not wrong rambling about the excellence of a wounded Warner, two deliveries was all it took for the man to make you go, “Eh?”. After callously throwing his hands at an away-drifter from Siraj on his 7th delivery and missing - absolutely no feet movement, mind you - Warner refused to learn his lessons and pulled off an encore on ball 8. This time, however, he nicked it and saw himself head back to the pavilion inside 20 minutes on what certainly and undoubtedly was the best batting conditions on offer all series.
Warner’s entire eight-ball stay in the middle proved that his selection for this Test was nothing more than a hail-mary pick where Langer & Co. hoped for the southpaw to magically come good, instill fear in the Indians and give the Aussies a psychological edge based just on his reputation. It was a gamble with no cricketing logic that backfired and one presumes that the worst is yet to come for Australia, now that Warner will have to ‘manage’ himself on the field for god-knows-how-long. Well, let us all collectively seek justice for Marcus Harris, shall we?
Will Pucovski survives baptism of fire
For someone who averages 54.50 in first-class cricket, and had scores of 202 and 255* in two of his last five innings, it was rather unfortunate that all the focus was on Will Pucovski’s history of concussions and his troubles against the short ball, and not his precocious talent. Having seen him get hit on his head at Drummoyne Oval first-hand, India needed no invitations: it took them all of five balls to test Pucovski with the short ball. To claim he dealt with those - surprisingly occasional - short balls with ease would be a blatant lie, but he found a way around it - with a lot of luck, of course.
But ignoring the lives India gifted him - and there were many - Langer & co. couldn’t have asked for a more promising first knock from their prodigal son. For all the scrutiny there was about his seemingly dangerous technique - which directly resulted in his undoing - the ‘good’ in Pucovski’s stay on Day 1 blew the ‘bad’ out of water. The alacrity and authority with which he defended and drove the ball off both front and back-foot was masterly, but what stood out was his ability to quickly hit the reset button and focus on the present. He was, all day, actively looking for scoring opportunities but, most importantly, apart from ensuring that he actually put the bad balls away, the Victorian did not ponder over what troubled him.
Understandably, he looked more at home versus pace than the spin of Ashwin, but everything about Pucovski’s knock screamed that he is ready. Tougher challenges on menacing wickets lie ahead, so does more scrutiny, but a 62 versus a rampant Bumrah and Ashwin on debut is more than you could ask for.
India cannot afford to keep squandering chances
Turns out India’s near-perfect performance on the field at the MCG was a one-off. After spilling four clear-cut chances in Adelaide - three sitters - each of which could potentially have turned the complexion of the game around, India spilt just one in Melbourne, but normalcy was restored today. Courtesy Rishabh Pant, the main culprit, the visitors fluffed two catches that should be taken all day of the week at the international level and courtesy Jasprit Bumrah, a clear-cut run-out opportunity was squandered. Young Pucovski was the lucky recipient of all three reprieves, but more than that he went on to score 62, it was that India let Australia off the hook when, like at MCG, they could potentially have had them at their mercy on a flat wicket.
49, 56 and 70 read Australia’s score at the time of each of the three reprieves. The first drop - Pant’s sitter versus Ashwin - came at a time when India, led by Ashwin, had well and truly applied the stranglehold on the batters, where they built sustained pressure, conceding just 8 runs across a 7-over stretch. Smith would have been in at 49/2 in the 23rd over, under immense pressure, with Ashwin once again ready to maraud him, had the chance been gobbled up, yet India wouldn’t strike until 12 overs later. Not only was the pressure firmly released by then, but the breathing space (read: largesse) the Indians offered eventually gave Smith the platform to dictate the game.
India have thus far refused to push Australia out of the series despite having ample chances to do so, and it is hard to imagine them not paying the price for the same on a docile SCG wicket.