Adelaide Test Day 1: Australia ahead, but late strikes keep India in the game

The Border-Gavaskar trophy kicked off today, after a numbing fortnight in the aftermath of Philip Hughes’ tragic death. While everyone associated with the game, and especially broadcasters, presented a cheery front with a clear message of ‘we need to move on’, the man’s shadow was writ large over the Adelaide Oval on Day 1 of the First Test. The Australians are never found wanting on intensity on most days, and this gargantuan tragedy must have only pushed it up a few notches, as a largely lackluster Indian bowling attack found out today.

In line with my predictions a month earlier (with Brisbane in mind and in much happier times), Karn Sharma made his debut, being preferred over spin stalwarts like Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. There were no other surprises. Varun Aaron’s red-hot form in the warm-up games edged out Umesh Yadav, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s unavailability due to injury meant that Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami were automatic choices.

Match Status

At 345-3 with 6 overs to go, Australia looked set to claim Day 1 by a huge margin. By stumps, however, three more wickets, two of them big ones, had fallen for the addition of just 9 runs. The Aussies are still ahead, with Steven Smith looking extremely fluent, but the late strikes ensured that India will have some momentum going into the second day, and with the severity of Michael Clarke’s injury yet unknown, a sub-400 total is a possibility. 

The first two sessions belonged to Australia, as an emotionally charged David Warner took the game by the scruff of its neck en route to a 10th Test century, the 5th in his last 10 innings. His opening partner Chris Rogers looked visibly uncomfortable during his brief stay, and was all at sea during the first over of the Test, perhaps the only one today where ball entirely dominated the bat. Shane Watson came and went, but the 118 run partnership between Clarke and Warner put Australia in the driving seat.

India went wicket-less between Lunch and Tea, with their only ‘breakthrough’ coming with Clarke retiring hurt on 60, his troubled back playing up yet again. Unfortunate or otherwise, it was a major relief for India’s tepid bowling attack to see the back of a man who has a 100+ batting average on this ground, which is just 6 adrift of the great Sir Don on this all-time batsman’s paradise.

Virat Kohli’s inexperience came to the fore, with the bowling side maintaining an atrocious over-rate through the day. Vijay had to roll his arm over to hasten proceedings, but this took out further sting from an already near-toothless attack.

I had despairingly tweeted at Tea that India needed a minimum of 3 wickets in the final session, and my prayers were answered, albeit at the fag-end of the day’s play. Aaron was largely unimpressive today, but it was his unexpected lifting delivery which accounted for Mitchell Marsh and triggered the late mini-collapse.

Australian Player of the Day – David Warner

Warner was the architect of Australian dominance on Day 1, by a long distance. Reminiscent of Virender Sehwag in his prime, at least in terms of aggression, the diminutive southpaw provided a live definition of the difference between anger and emotional content during his sublime innings of 145. Warner’s bond with the late Hughes, and the trauma of being in close proximity when he fell, was evident from his body language. To his credit, the NSW lad channelized the pain into fierce concentration, which, combined with his natural aggression, broke the back of the Indian bowling.
Warner’s opening wrested the initiative from the Indians, who had done a good job of bottling up one end and sending Rogers and Watson back to the hut, but were powerless against the dynamo opener. Every milestone was followed by a searching glance at the skies for his mate, and when Warner raised his bat on reaching 63*, it was a gentle reminder of the human element in an increasingly commercial sport. His innings was largely chance-less, with a run-out scare, while on 131, possibly the only blemish amid a flurry of brilliant stroke-play. 

Indian Player of the Day – Ishant Sharma

Ishant Sharma’s spell today was the difference between the current score and a 400+ one at the end of Day 1. Coming in first change with the score looking more T20-ish than Test at 45/0 after 5 overs, the lanky pacer began with a maiden, that too against the rampaging Warner, who was clocking a SR of close to 200 prior to that over.

Ishant accounted for an edgy Rogers in his next over, and welcomed Shane Watson with an accurate bouncer, causing him to take his eyes of the ball as it went whistling past his ear. He continued to work on the Aussie all-rounder, hitting him with another short ball directed at the body, after an unsuccessful lbw appeal in the previous over.

Aaron then got rid of the burly all-rounder, as the subdued Watson attempted to cut a ball too close to his body and slashed to 2nd slip, but I would credit Ishant’s probing length as an abetment to the dismissal.

Though the Delhi lad had just one wicket to show for his efforts, he was the only ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy bowling performance by the Indians, the final 10 minutes notwithstanding. A yard slower than his younger colleagues, Ishant made up for it by hitting uncomfortable lengths and extracting disconcerting bounce quite consistently.

Camp Concerns

The hunt for a worthy successor to Ricky Ponting continues to be a concern for Australia, with Watson looking extremely uncomfortable at this position. More worrying than the early dismissal was his ineptitude against the short delivery today, which could force the team management to reconsider a specialist no.3, possibly Shaun Marsh, and pick one between Watto and Mitchell Marsh in the middle-order, going forward.

The biggest worry, however, will be Clarke’s injury, the extent of which is not yet known. According to latest reports, the Australian captain has undertaken scans, the results of which are awaited. Local websites/news channels have expressed concern at the possibility of Clarke’s injury causing him to pull out of the series and even jeopardize World Cup plans.

Smith’s consistency in the middle order is a big positive, but Clarke’s unavailability could exert immense pressure on a not-so-menacing batting line-up, heavily reliant on Warner to get them off to explosive starts.

Coming to India, there are plenty of concerns. Aaron tops that list, with Shami closely following. Aaron could not recover from Warner’s early onslaught, and while he did work up some pace, the Jharkhand quick was hardly threatening. His best delivery was the first bouncer of this Test – quick, accurate and uncomfortably close to the back of Warner’s head, as replays showed. It’s a pity he could not maintain that sort of intensity through the day, while hinting at a possible niggle which will hopefully be a passing one. To his credit, he surprised Marsh into a false stroke, triggering two more wickets, which will allow Kohli to breathe a bit more easily tonight.

After a probing first over, Shami was taken to the cleaners by Warner, and he did little worth mentioning in ensuing spells, with his twin wickets at the death providing an undeserving respectability to his figures.
I wouldn’t be excessively harsh on the young leggie, who looked out of sorts to begin with, but got tighter towards the end of his spell. Karn does not come across as a natural in this format, bowling mostly with a flat trajectory and limited variations. His first class record is also not much to write home about, but with Ashwin and Jadeja not delivering overseas, it is a justifiable gamble, the pay-off of which we will come to know in a few days.  

Final Word

The Aussies are definitely in the ascendancy. Considering the three late wickets as well as Clarke’s uncertain participation, I would say the game is poised 60:40 in their favor.

A lot will depend on tomorrow’s morning session. Australia will look to add at least 100 runs, while India will pin their hopes on getting Smith early and restricting the batting side to within the vicinity of 400.