Australia yesterday wasted a gilded opportunity to bat themselves into a dominant position in the fourth Test on the fastest, bounciest pitch of the series at Dharamsala.
While the tourists will be disappointed with posting only 300 after being 1-144, the sharp lift and jagging seam movement Josh Hazlewood got in the last over of the day showed there is plenty in the pitch for the quicks.
Earlier, the first and second sessions could scarcely have been more different. India were woeful in the first session, fielding awfully, bowling without discipline and distinctly lacking intensity in the absence of firebrand skipper Virat Kohli, who was ruled out through injury.
This sloppiness was evident from the first ball of the day when Karun Nair turfed an edge after Australian opener David Warner aimed a hopeful drive at a Bhuvneshwar Kumar outswinger.
That was followed by a sequence of misfields which gifted up to a dozen runs to Warner and captain Steve Smith as they put on a 134-run stand. While Warner looked scratchy throughout his knock, Smith batted with remarkable confidence and fluency.
The Indians seemed clueless as to how to bowl to Smith, which is not surprising considering he’s scored seven tons in his past eight Tests against them and has piled up 482 runs at 80 in this series. They tried all manner of tactics – targeting his stumps, bowling well wide of off stump, and even had their two right-arm quicks make the highly-unusual move of bowling around the wicket to him.
Throughout all of this, Smith cantered along without a worry in the world. But his dominance was not enough to prevent the Indians from charging back into the contest in the second session on a back of a wonderful spell by debutant Kuldeep Yadav.
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Every Australian batsman, bar Smith, was flummoxed by the Chinaman bowler. While he displayed some impressive variety, including a well-concealed wrong’un, Kuldeep’s best asset was his accuracy.
His length, in particular, was exquisite, something which is truly rare among wrist spinners, who tend to serve up a decent number of long hops, half volleys and full tosses.
In the last session the TV coverage displayed Kuldeep’s pitch map, which showed that not a single one of his more than 100 deliveries had landed on a short length. Unlike India’s finger spinners, who were frequently punished on the drive when they overpitched, Kuldeep was able to toss his deliveries right up because of the sharp dip he earned.
This deceptive drop accounted for both Peter Handscomb and Pat Cummins, each of whom thought they were to the pitch of the ball only for it to dip at the last moment. After tricking Handscomb, Kuldeep then did the same thing to Glenn Maxwell except with a different method.
He landed a beautiful wrong ‘un just outside Maxwell’s leg stump and got it to turn across the right hander and clatter his off peg. Kuldeep missed out on a deserved five-wicket haul but will know that he was the difference between Australia posting a mediocre total or a potentially massive one.
Australia, however, are far from being out of this Test. The Dharamsala pitch is known as the most pace-friendly deck in India and it offered generous assistance to the fast bowlers yesterday.
Hazlewood’s first ball landed on a full length yet screamed through off the pitch, taken above head height by keeper Matt Wade, who had helped nurse Australia to a semi-respectable total with a plucky knock of 57.
His fourth delivery seamed alarmingly away from opener KL Rahul, who followed this movement and almost edged behind.
This deck will give Australia’s match-winning quicks far more help than any of the other three pitches in this series. If Hazlewood and Pat Cummins bowl well tomorrow they will pose a significant challenge to the Indian batsmen. Australia’s spinners, meanwhile, will have been encouraged by the fast turn and sharp bounce which India’s slow bowlers achieved.
While it is hard to predict how the pitch will act in the second half of the Test, it was a fantastic day one surface which brought every type of bowler into the match.