Of course Ajinkya Rahane wanted to bat first at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Saturday.
One could not help but smile a few times listening to Rahane on Friday ahead of the second Test between Australia and India. Whether he truly believed it or not, he did not hesitate to repeat that India had only one bad hour in Adelaide. It was a masterclass in saying a lot without saying much as the stand-in captain dealt largely in cliches.
You could, of course, understand it too. India were coming into this Boxing Day Test on the back of a disastrous day at Adelaide Oval. The Winter of 36, as some have dubbed it already, was still fresh on the minds of everyone who wanted to throw their questions at Rahane. But, like a good Test batsman, he let most of them go. The ones he did choose to play, were dead-batted. He might not have given any great insights, but he was clearly not going to give a headline.
A day after that, as the stumps were drawn at MCG, India’s score was again 36. But this time, they had lost just one wicket and the bowlers had bundled out Australia for 195 after Tim Paine had opted to bat first. Rahane could not have hoped for a much better position to be in after losing the toss.
Display of character
On Saturday, the task facing Rahane and India was already humongous. First, they had to bounce back from the country’s lowest score in Test cricket history. Then, they had to do without Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami. And after all that, the toss did not go in their favour.
Since 1992, in the 12 occasions that Australia have won the toss and batted first at the MCG in a Boxing Day Test, their average score was 379.33. The last time when Australia were bowled our for less than 200 after opting to bat first at MCG was in 1981.
Of course Ajinkya Rahane wanted to bat first.
Because if Australia piled on a big first innings score, an already tough task could have become near impossible. A good opening partnership, or even a quiet first session, would have put Australia in a position of command and it would not be an exaggeration to say the Border Gavaskar Trophy would have started slipping from India’s grasps.
But, led by Jasprit Bumrah and Ashwin Ravichandran, India produced a bowling performance to be proud of.
Sure, the bowlers have been the heroes of this Test side in the recent past and you could argue this was to be expected of them. But in the absence of two mainstays, at a venue where Australia typically pile the runs on, this was not a given.
And Bumrah set the tempo from the word go. An early wicket was just reward for him as he once again showed how clever he is with using the bowling crease, to draw Joe Burns into playing a drive at one that straightened with the angle.
And Ashwin, brought on to bowl within the first hour, set the tempo early with his flight and overspin. As Glenn McGrath said, on a pitch that seamed, a spinner would be handful too. He drew Matthew Wade out beautifully and not long after, after getting one to rip past Rishabh Pant, dismissed Steve Smith for a duck. For the second time in the series, Australia’s talisman was out cheaply against India’s ace spinner. Later on, showing off his remarkable ability to read batsmen, he kept tossing the ball up to Tim Paine and reaped the reward.
And Mohammed Siraj, having been made to wait till the start of second session to bowl for the first time in his Test career, produced a special effort with the older ball to finish with two wickets. He kept his pace up throughout, hit good lengths, used the bouncer well, and most importantly, bowled to the field.
And just like that, India restricted Australia to their eighth lowest score of all time when opting to bat first at their most iconic Test venue.
The visitors were also helped by the fact that the catches were sticking too. Ravindra Jadeja, without the baggage of Adelaide, proved why he is the best fielder in this side when he took the catch to dismiss Wade. And the rest of the fielders too showed safe hands as hardly a chance went down.
Even the tail was not allowed to wag too much, as Bumrah helped clean up Nathan Lyon (with a full ball after getting hit for a six and four) and Mitchell Starc (with a bouncer).
There was good energy on the field, the plans were largely executed well, Bumrah and Ashwin guided the rest of the bowling unit around while Rahane called the shots impressively.
India's bowling first innings
Make no mistake, irrespective of how this match proceeds from here on, India should be proud of how they fared on Boxing Day at the MCG. Often in sport, the short-term joys are overlooked for the bigger picture. Far too many times, we add caveats while appreciating good efforts.
Today, Bumrah and Ashwin — with help from Siraj — made sure India came up with a performance that they should pat themselves on the back for after losing the toss. It might have been a cliche from Rahane, but India did well to stay in the here and now, focus on their plans and do what very few teams have managed in the history of the game: to restrict Australia on day one at MCG.
Getting into a good position in a Test match away from home has not been an issue for this Indian team. More often than not it is making that position of strength count is where the problems have occurred. Now, whether the result is something they will remember fondly, depends on how the batsmen fare in the rest of this match. Just one bad session, as we have been told repeatedly, is all it takes to undo the good work.
One does not have to get carried away, but credit where it is due: India showed plenty of character to give themselves a good chance of fighting back in this series.