As the two captains walked out for the toss in Ranchi, there was a wild sense of anticipation about the JSCA International Stadium Complex. Partly, it was to do with the first-ever Test getting underway at this ground. Most of it, though, was about the eventual outcome of the toss, and how this much-talked-about pitch would play.

Steve Smith won the toss and opted to bat, of course. Two slips and a gully were in place for Ishant Sharma to start with. It was a departure from the 3+1 routine seen in this series earlier. Not to mention, the keeper and slip fielders stood up from their usual positions. Clearly, Virat Kohli didn’t expect much bounce from the word go. Would he open with spin from one end though?

Indian pacers shine again

Ishant didn’t get the ball to rip, as usual, but one from Umesh Yadav – at 89 miles per hour – took off. It wasn’t exactly a bouncer, even for David Warner’s height. For the record, there weren’t many bouncers bowled on this day one of the Ranchi Test, leave alone when the ball was new and hard in the first hour of play. Spin came on in the seventh over of the innings.

The score read 31/0 at that time. The media storm (mostly Australian) before the game was already diffused. Even before the morning session was up, there needed to be a retraction of words (again, mostly from the Australian media) about how this pitch was truer than the wickets at Pune and Bengaluru.

There were no devils, the ball wasn’t turning square, the outfield was quick, and runs were coming easily. Yes, the visitors cried hoarse for nothing before this Test, and that is putting it rather mildly after a week of exhausting over-reaction from the Australian camp. Both Kohli and Smith, in their pre-match conferences, had tried hard to shift focus away from the controversial build-up.

On a pitch playing true then, Australia’s opening stand of 50 runs did the job perfectly. David Warner and Matt Renshaw went about at a fair clip and they scored these runs off just 57 balls. The wicket’s surety played a part and it called for a change in strategy. There was not much in it for the spinners, and there was erratic repetition of low bounce. This is where India’s two pacers put their hand up.

Truth told, this home season, India’s pace attack has come of age, and that includes the experienced Ishant too. Since the West Indies tour, through the series against New Zealand, England and Bangladesh, there has been a keen consistency in how the Indian pacers have bowled. When fit, Mohammed Shami is the enforcer. Bhuvneshwar Kumar is used as per conditions. Ishant performs the holding role, and then there is Umesh Yadav.

Umesh Yadav has undergone a sea of change in becoming India’s lead bowler (AFP)

From 2016 onwards, Yadav has undergone a sea of change in becoming India’s lead bowler, particularly in the absence of Shami. He always had that knack of delivering a breakthrough, but consistency is a more heartening aspect of this recent growth curve. He has done it umpteen times this home season, but you don’t need to watch highlights from the series already gone by. Just play back his second spell from the morning session, and the one after lunch later.

When he returned to bowl in the 21st over, there was already some reverse swing on offer. At his pace, with this particular weapon added on, Yadav has been lethal. As he bowled to Smith, Kohli put up a restrictive leg-side field – silly mid-on, squarish mid-on, short mid-wicket, and squarish mid-wicket. The ploy was clear – take the ball away, and then slip one in, reversing ideally, and trap the Australian captain.

It didn’t work against Smith, but Renshaw bit the bullet. He edged one that fell short, and the very next ball, opened the face of his bat just a tad more, enough for the ball to fly to Kohli at slip. Post lunch, with a similar ploy, Peter Handscomb succumbed to Yadav as well, a full-bloodied yorker onto his boots. At the other end, it was inspiration enough for Ishant to hold a steady line. Australia went from 50/0 to 140/4, as the Indian bowling applied a collective choke on a good batting surface.

The Big Show

Whenever Glenn Maxwell comes to the crease, try and play the WWE wrestler’s theme in your head, for it adds to the expectancy of a big-hitting innings. He has that reputation – smack everything out of sight. The thing about such an approach, though, is sometimes it works and mostly it doesn’t. Not to mention, Test cricket is different. A slow-release, wherein the opposition will trick you into thinking that it is playing to your strength while it is cleverly trying to pry upon your weakness.

Against popular expectations then, Maxwell canned his natural urges and helped steady the Australian innings. While Smith went about his business at the other end, looking busy at the crease and grinding out runs, Maxwell’s determination to simply not throw it away was truly spectacular.

Maybe, the devil isn’t in pitches or in a player’s particular natural ability. Maybe, it is in building up a certain narrative, one that is fit into the situation-at-hand, rather than providing an apt description. Maybe the hype about Maxwell’s “natural game” is just that. Even in hitting a six off Ravindra Jadeja to reach his maiden Test fifty – a shot unlike his T20 slogs – he showed enough merit in an alternative story to be told about him. Maybe, this Ranchi pitch – if it had a voice – would be screaming out the same.

If there was certain resolve in Smith to bat all day, the same narration cannot be denied to Maxwell too. The Australian skipper needed someone to stay with him, and none among their top-order (all considered better batsmen than Maxwell) could do so.

Both Smith and Maxwell were playing the same attack, one with a longer vision, the other more in the current scheme of things. It could be seen in the manner Maxwell raced once past his half-century. By the time Smith moved from 94 to 98 in the space of 25 deliveries, Maxwell had raced from 51 to 73.

Sure, it didn’t help that Kohli was off the field for the entire final session, as Australia closed shop with 299 runs on the board, setting up the game. “It was a good pitch to bat on,” said Renshaw after the first day’s play. “The Indians came hard at us, but they were very quiet today. The morning session tomorrow will be vital in shaping the outcome of this Test,” he added, re-affirming that the focus is firmly back on cricket.