How do you remove India’s sturdy captain Virat Kohli? By bowling loose half-volleys, apparently.
Like men trying to change the tyres on a moving vehicle, India’s batsmen tried to relearn how to play test cricket while playing a test match. Their failure was both understandable and a resounding disappointment.
One after another, the touring top order threw away their wickets. For all the reams of paper and hours of effort in analysing how to dismiss Virat Kohli, Australia stumbled on the theory of poisonous dross. Loose half-volleys were enough to remove not only the Indian champion but also three of his top-order colleagues.
In the middle order, surprise recall Rohit Sharma slogged away his reprieve, while Rishabh Pant attempted vigorously to do the same. Only Cheteshwar Pujara could remember enough of the first-class format to salvage some of the opportunity that had been wasted.
Australia’s bowling was aggressive and thoughtful and, in Josh Hazlewood’s case, outstanding. But this was a story of a touring team paying the price for inadequate preparation. All touring teams do it, nobody seems to learn, and because it happens so repeatedly we can only conclude that the neglect is willful. test cricket, you would think, deserves better, but perhaps the real evidence of the format’s endangered life is what we have seen on the pitch in Adelaide.
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Kohli, opener K.L. Rahul and Pant all played their last first-class match eight weeks ago, a test against the West Indies in Hyderabad. Since then, they have played exclusively short-form cricket with a single centre-wicket practice against juniors on the SCG last week. India’s batting in Adelaide on Thursday was loose and at times embarrassing.
Rahul and Kohli drove airily and were caught behind the wicket. So too were Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane, whose last first-class game was against New Zealand A in exotic Mount Maunganui three weeks ago. Rohit, who played his last first-class match 10 months ago, against South Africa in Pretoria, breezed along to 37 before trying in vain to gift his wicket by slogging Nathan Lyon, then doing a proper job on himself next ball.
Given how much was at stake, it was the strangest start to the Border-Gavaskar series. But perhaps it should have been anticipated, for India’s commitments to fulfilling the commercial demands of white-ball cricket were bound to catch up with them. They are not alone. So many touring teams perform so poorly overseas, with the most perfunctory preparation sandwiched into a “window” that is really only a crack, that the idea of giving them a helping hand by abolishing the coin toss has been floated. The idea is that by letting them choose to bat (or bowl) first, they can even out some of the general factors weighing against visitors.
This cannot account for self-sabotage. The advantage would have been redundant for India, who won the toss, gaining first use of the Adelaide Oval pitch on a near-40 degree day, and blew it. Perhaps the telling statistic was that in their first hundred runs, five wickets fell and five sixes were hit. The sixes broke out like sneezes during a yoga session. The dismissals were more predictable.
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Pujara’s preparation has been marginally better than his teammates’ – his last first-class match was in the Ranji Trophy a month ago, but at least he had not been playing white-ball cricket. His adaptation to the tempo of test cricket came naturally. He alone seemed to realise that batsmen on the first day of an Adelaide test match ought to be thinking in terms of days, not minutes.
He went through one period of non-scoring that lasted from noon, through the lunch break, and another half-hour into the afternoon. He appeared not to care less. Rohit outpaced him and ended in ignominy. Pujara dazzled nobody but was still there in the shadow of stumps, an exemplary hundred beside his name.
Not only did Pujara play real test cricket, his body spoke in a real test cricketer’s language. Where some of his teammates are equipped with thrusting chests and belligerent chins, Pujara’s body folds in on rounded shoulders and a chin tucked tight against his chest while he waits for the ball to come to him. He played every delivery under his eye; like a patriarch from The Handmaid’s Tale, his aim was to suppress and subdue it.
As the day drew on, India were eventually getting the hang of it. It’s a five-day match, bowlers get tired, and the wicket will be at its best on the weekend. Unfortunately for them, too many valuable batsmen had gone by the time their batting rhythm fell in with Pujara’s metronome. Without inflicting quite enough self-harm to lose the test match on its first day, they squandered a great chance, and they knew it.