Border-Gavaskar Trophy: India delivers early blows in Nagpur; onus on Australia to respond
If you are an Indian cricket fan, savour these numbers. 91. 131. And throw in 32.3. These aren’t ordinary, meaningless numbers. 91 is the quantum of runs Australia managed in the second innings of the first Test. 131 is the total minutes the duration of the said doomed innings lasted. And 32.3 is the number of overs Australia survived against a top-class Indian attack spearheaded wolfishly by that master off-spinner, R Ashwin.
Oh, and don’t forget an innings and 132 runs, for that was the margin by which India lorded over Pat Cummins’ men at the VCA Stadium in Nagpur in the first of four Tests for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
India, an unstoppable force at home
These are ‘punishments’ Australian teams have, in the past, inflicted on hapless opponents. To be at the receiving end of a three-day drubbing must be particularly chastening for Cummins’ men, currently ranked No. 1 on the ICC Test charts.
India’s pillar-to-post dominance should come as little surprise to those that even cursorily follow international cricket. At home, it has been an unstoppable force, having not lost a Test series since 2012-13 (to England). Now formidable in all conditions in any part of the world, it wears a solid cloak of invincibility in its own backyard, making optimal use of its familiarity with the weather, with the pitches, with the knowledge that things can happen very, very quickly after a funereal passage of play.
In the most daunting of circumstances, India has the wherewithal to dig deep and push forward with confidence and conviction, though in Nagpur, the circumstances were anything but daunting. The team grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck right from the first ball once Cummins won what could have been a significant toss, and never loosened its grip, drawing on the expertise and experience of several crack performers to subject Australia to a brutal hammering.
Familiar suspects played a big part in India’s roaring victory. Rohit Sharma, the captain, led from the front with the bat, making a loud statement of intent with a fabulous ninth Test hundred. Ravindra Jadeja, making a return to international cricket after five months away following a knee surgery, reiterated his value with a command all-round performance (five wickets on the first day, a sedate but crucial 70 in his only dig, two wickets on day three) and Axar Patel continued his honeymoon with Test cricket while blazing to 84, batting at No. 9.
Ashwin stamps his authority
Having played his part with the ball and then bat on the first two days, if only in a supporting role, Ashwin decided it was time to stamp his authority on the game and hasten the climax. Thrown the new ball by his captain to have a go at the left-handed Australian opening pair of Usman Khawaja and David Warner, it took Ashwin just five deliveries to get into the game. Bowling from round the stumps, he drew Khawaja into an expansive drive that skewered off the outside edge to slip, and an easy catch for Virat Kohli. The latter would put down an even simpler chance at the same position off the same bowler a little while later, but Warner was in no position to capitalise on that let-off, such was the web of dominance Ashwin weaved around him.
Despite his recent travails that have triggered question marks over his future, Warner can still turn it on, like he did two games back in his 100th Test, with a double ton against South Africa. Here, though, he was made to look like a novice by the maestro who is India’s second-highest Test wicket-taker. So often did Ashwin go past his outside edge that all Warner could do was offer a nervous, sheepish smile by way of acknowledgement. Ashwin knew that he had Warner’s number, that it was only a matter of time. Ominously for Australia, Warner knew it too.
Rohit’s ‘bigger challenge’
Rohit finds himself in the luxurious position of having to summon two champion spinners and a third (Axar) who, in these conditions, can be deadly dangerous. Oftentimes, his challenge is how to rotate these three wonderful bowlers, how to ensure that one of them isn’t under-bowled, how to figure out when someone is tiring or losing his discipline because his desire for wickets is so high that he veers away from the patience game plan that’s the team’s mantra. Happy headaches might sound cute and inviting, but they aren’t always happy. A good captain is one that can instinctively intuit these shifting dynamics, and Rohit is nothing if not a fantastic leader of men, a wonderful man manager.
As he joked around at the press conference later, he let it slip that his biggest challenge was to oblige the requests of his two lead spinners to have a crack at imminent milestones. “Ashwin was telling me, I have got four wickets, I want to take a fifth, give me the ball. Jadeja was saying I am on 249 wickets, give me the ball,” he laughed. “I don’t pay much attention to milestones but these guys know all these things. More than worrying about who should bowl from which end, this is my bigger challenge!”
Will Australia bounce back?
That ‘challenge’, though, pales into insignificance when he is able to fall back on quality of the kind at his disposal. On the first morning, even before the spinners got into the game, Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami had made serious inroads by winkling out Warner and Khawaja inside the first 15 minutes. Between them, the two quicks only bowled 21.3 overs in the two innings combined; Shami boasts 219 Test wickets, Siraj has seldom bowled better than over the last six months. To be able to bowl the top dogs in Test cricket out for 177 and 91 with no more than token appearances at the bowling crease of two of the top pacers in the world isn’t a privilege many captains are afforded.
This series is just one Test young, there’s a long way to go yet – as of now, no one is entirely sure where we will go, quite literally, for the third Test – but India has landed both the tangible cricketing and the intangible psychological early blows. The onus is on Australia to respond, to show that Nagpur was no more than an aberration. Will it be able to do so? More importantly, will it be allowed to do so?