If Australia is to edge close or even sneak past India’s first innings total in the Domain Series opener, it will be a batter with vast experience at the Adelaide Oval but little exposure at Test level who is charged with responsibility to get them there.
South Australia captain Travis Head, playing in his third Test, ended day two on his home patch unbeaten on 61, a shining light on a difficult day that his team finished 7-191 and still 59 runs in arrears.
During a brutal afternoon, when temperatures spiked above 38C and a hot northerly wind howled off the continent’s desert centre, Australia’s besieged batters found runs as hard to come by as was relaxed comfort for the crowd of 25,693.
While it was the dry, dusty heat that vexed the latter, the former’s troubles came more problematically in the shape of India spinner Ravi Ashwin who claimed 3-50 from a stoic 33 overs, and from the three-pronged seam attack that probed constantly down breeze.
To place Australia’s effort in context, the top-order of the world’s top-ranked Test team had found similar trouble mastering batting a day prior, and it was the virtuoso effort of Cheteshwar Pujara who posted 123 (next-best score being 37) that carried the visitors to 250.
Pujara’s knock was built on a rock-solid foundation of more than 60 Tests and almost 14,000 first-class runs, whereas Head was asked to reprise that role on the strength of four previous Test innings in a career just two months old.
Yet the 24-year-old who hails from Gawler, on the cusp of South Australia’s fabled Barossa Valley, played with a surety and maturity that belied his comparative inexperience to keep his team in a neatly poised Test.
In his maiden Test innings on home turf, Head survived the probing off-spin of Ashwin at the outset before unfurling a series of sweetly struck off-side strokes to post the only half-century of Australia’s troubled day, from 103 balls faced with five boundaries.
He was also involved in the most productive partnership of the home team’s knock, a 50-run stand with Pat Cummins that ended immediately after India took the second new-ball in the final hour when the fast bowler was pinned lbw.
It was Pujara’s lower-order unions with Ashwin and keeper Rishabh Pant yesterday that had enabled India to post a competitive tally after finding themselves in equal peril in a match where ball has regularly mastered bat.
Head resumes his counter-punching effort Saturday in partnership with Mitchell Starc (eight not out), with card-carrying tailenders Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon to come against a refreshed attack bearing a ball just eight overs old.
Day two had begun with whispered expectation that India’s last pair might steal an extra 20-30 runs against the hard, new ball in a fashion as breezy as the northerly that had already begun its uncomfortable bluster.
It took a single delivery to scotch that notion, as India’s No.10 Mohammed Shami wafted at a leg-side loosener from Josh Hazlewood, ensuring the visitors’ final total finished at their overnight benchmark.
It also brought into question the prudence of play being prematurely suspended the previous evening, only for the game to stop for a 10-minute change-of-innings after several seconds of on-field action that yielded Shami’s wicket.
Another hiatus followed immediately upon resumption, as Australia’s pursuit began in spectacularly awful circumstances.
Without a run on the sheet, and having survived a tepid shout for lbw after shouldering arms to the second ball he faced, opener Aaron Finch aimed at an expansive cover drive at the third and surrendered his wicket with stumps felled like an Amazonian rainforest.
In light of last night’s revelation from Pujara that it can take a session or two to appreciate which strokes can and can’t be attempted on the challenging Adelaide pitch, it was clearly a rash early effort from Finch.
Compounded further for his knowing the issues India’s top-order had encountered a day earlier while pursuing speculative off-side drives, on a surface where the 6mm of grass cover enables the ball to deviate slightly, and hold-up occasionally.
From that decisive moment, the day became one of attrition – Australia’s batters locked in dour combat with India’s impressively parsimonious bowling outfit, and both teams battling the oppressive elements.
In his maiden Test innings, Finch’s opening partner Marcus Harris appeared composed and competent though it’s doubtful he has ever worked harder to score 26 runs in his seven-year first-class career to date.
Certainly, he has not experienced an ovation as loud and lengthy as that which greeted his inaugural Test runs, the three that came courtesy of a deft flick through square leg from the first delivery he faced.
But for the ensuing hour and half, such gifts were a rarity as India’s seamers Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Shami maintained a disciplined line, a mostly immaculate length and found just enough in the pitch to deprive the batters of certainty.
The introduction of Ashwin from the River Torrens end after 11 overs meant that clamp was applied even tighter.
In his fourth over, Ashwin almost snared Harris when the debutant opener pushed at a delivery that narrowly eluded the fingertips of Murali Vijay, who was crouched expectantly at silly mid-off.
An over later, that pair combined to end Harris’s stay as the left-hander – one of four in Australia’s top six, to Ashwin’s obvious delight – squeezed an edge from near the toe of his bat and on to his pad, that then looped to the close catcher.
His removal united the most experienced, and best-credentialed pairing in Australia’s batting line-up, but Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh were able to find only two runs in the course of almost seven over either side of lunch before the latter fell trying to break India’s grip.
Ashwin shrewdly looped an off-break full and wide, in the knowledge gleaned from yesterday’s batting trials that driving is the most fraught form of attack on this Adelaide pitch.
Seeing a rare scoring opportunity presented, Marsh tried to muscle Ashwin through the covers only for the ball to grab the inside edge of his bat, and rifle back on to his stumps.
Khawaja, by contrast, had looked more comfortable against spin and seam but to his frustration that familiarity was not readily translated into runs.
He faced 135 balls to reach 28 – the slowest scoring rate of a Test tenure so often characterised by languidly fluent stroke-making – before he also succumbed to Ashwin, a victim of the unerring eye of technology.
Khawaja’s forward lunge brought a loud appeal that was declined by umpire Kumar Dhamasena, but even before the Sri Lankan had stopped shaking his head India skipper Virat Kohli called for a review that revealed the slightest brush of ball against the batter’s left thumb.
At 4-87, Australia could comfort themselves knowing they were still in better shape than were India a day earlier, when they had slipped to 4-41.
The notable difference being the visitors had Pujara (then with 15 Test tons to his name) to oversee a recovery, whereas Australia’s last specialist batting pair Peter Handscomb and Head boasted just 15 Test matches (and two hundreds) between them.
Handscomb’s inclusion at the expense of all-rounder Mitchell Marsh, with the stated intent of galvanising Australia’s flukey batting, was vindicated as he appeared as solid as any of his preceding teammates in scoring five boundaries during his (at that stage) innings-high 34.
Yet he too fell to the frustration that India’s bowling dominance had brought, aiming a cut shot at a Bumrah delivery pitched too full and too near.
When Paine fell half an hour later to perhaps the day’s best ball sent down by a seamer – a perfect length hit by Ishant that angled in at the Australia captain before straightening and taking a fine edge – the hosts were mired at 6-127 after 63 overs of relentless grind.
The precise same score on which India had lost their sixth wicket on Thursday, with Head’s capacity to channel Pujara’s expertise clearly to decide which team grasped first-innings honours.
Australia XI: Marcus Harris, Aaron Finch, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Peter Handscomb, Travis Head, Tim Paine (c,wk), Pat Cummins, Mitch Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
India XI: KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma
Domain Test Series v India
Dec 6-10: First Test, Adelaide Oval
Dec 14-18: Second Test, Perth Stadium
Dec 26-30: Third Test, MCG
Jan 3-7: Fourth Test, SCG
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c, wk), Josh Hazlewood (vc), Mitch Marsh (vc), Pat Cummins, Aaron Finch, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Chris Tremain
India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Prithvi Shaw, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar