It would have been impossible for you to miss one of the many statistics that were doing the rounds after Ajinkya Rahane confirmed India’s playing XI in Brisbane on Friday. But here’s one that summed up perfectly how out-of-the-ordinary India’s tour of Australia has been: the players who had bowled most deliveries in Test cricket in India’s XI were 1) Mohammed Siraj and 2) Rohit Sharma.
At the end of the day, T Natarajan and Washington Sundar – two of India’s debutants – picked up crucial wickets, Shardul Thakur also bagged his first Test wicket in what must have felt like another debut after his original one lasted just 10 deliveries. Mohammed Siraj, after dismissing David Warner in the first over, was also seen playing the role of a senior statesman in this line-up, and through it all, India stayed afloat at the fortress that is the Gabba.
Let all that sink in for a minute, because it truly is remarkable that Australia – in centurion Marnus Labuschagne’s words – are only just ahead in the state of play. And that, after winning the toss for a third straight game.
Not letting Australia get away
India could not have asked for a better start to the day after Siraj dismissed David Warner in the first over, helped by a quite sensational catch by Rohit Sharma at second slip. Not long after, Thakur dismissed Marcus Harris with the first ball on his comeback to the Test side.
As we had seen in the series, India did a good job of not letting Australia dictate the tempo earlier even if Steve Smith and Labuschagne looked to be on their way to completing a hat-trick of century partnerships. Later in the second session, Washington ensured that wouldn’t be the case as he had a Test wicket to his name before conceding a Test run, getting Smith caught at mid-wicket in his fourth over after starting off with three maidens. At 87/3, it really did feel like India were on to something.
Alas, among the many things that have been consistent with India on this tour – injuries, resilience, bouncing back from defeats, not giving up in adversity etc – dropping catches has also been one.
It is not often that one delivery bowled during a day of 87 overs would have such a telling impact on the game but that proved to be the case when Navdeep Saini ran in to bowl a good length ball that reared up and made Labuschagne play at it unconvincingly. The outside edge went to Rahane at gully and, as we saw during the white-ball leg of this tour, even the best of Indian fielders are putting chances down. That would also be the last ball that Saini bowled on the day, as he walked off the field with a groin issue to deal India another injury blow and making Rohit show off his new medium-pace bowling action.
The Aussie No 3 went on to provide India another chance that evaded both Rishabh Pant and Cheteshwar Pujara at first slip, and dropping him twice before he reached his fifty at his home ground was not helpful for the visitors. As he does then at the Gabba, Labuschagne went on to complete a century that he had threatened to make on more than one occasion in this series.
And thus continued a phase of play where Australia pushed forward with Matthew Wade and Labuschagne. This time, the hosts seemed keen to establish dominance too. They were batting a few yards outside the crease, the bad balls were being put away with authority. Thakur, who kept striving for the full length because he was the Indian bowler extracting most swing, was particularly severely dealt with.
Then, it was Natarajan’s turn to provide the breakthroughs. In his short international career, the pacer from Tamil Nadu has developed the useful habit of delivering wickets for his captain when the going is tough. Like he did in his first ODI by ending India’s wait for a wicket in the first powerplay, like he did in the T20Is with crucial wickets, Natarajan returned to bowl a spell with the older ball to remove the well-set Wade and Labuschagne. Both the dismissals were a case of batsmen trying to be extra aggressive against a rookie, then getting deceived by the extra bounce he was able to extract.
Unfortunately for India, there was yet another moment of regret left in the day. In an old-ball spell where he bowled some really good deliveries, Thakur put down a sitter to give Cameron Green an extra life. And riding on that chance, Australia finished the day with an unbeaten 61-run stand.
The overwhelming sense, though, is that India’s bowling unit once again impressed when it seemed the match (and series) was slipping away. It forced the pundits to at least debate who was ahead at this stage, without definitively handing the advantage to the hosts.
At stumps on day 1, India's bowling
And so, with (potentially) four days to go in this series that has been anything but ordinary for India, they are somehow still in it. They are not perfect as the missed opportunities have shown. They are not helping themselves, as was summed up in a moment of hilarity when Prithvi Shaw hit Rohit Sharma with a throw in a display of friendly fire. They are just about managing to keep enough fit enough fielders in the middle. And still, somehow, they are fighting.
To borrow a line from Game of Thrones, every time India have been faced with a difficult situation in this series, every time they have looked like falling significantly behind Australia, they have said: “Not today”.