Australia’s victory in the first Test is perhaps the most sensational heist in contemporary Test cricket. Who would have thought India, on a golden streak this home season, would be beaten so easily on a pitch loaded so heavily in their favour? The margin of defeat is telling. In a match where the highest total was 285, India lost by a whopping 333 runs. Australia’s spinners, especially Steve O’Keefe, gave no respite and India’s famed batsmen were made to look stragglers.
The pitch, of course, will be the subject of much debate. To be fair, this was a poor strip for a Test match. The surface had abrasions before a ball had been bowled and batting was always going to be difficult. Yet, this was not a huge departure from India’s gameplan of putting the Aussies to an early, serious test against spin, more so considering the form India’s slow bowlers had shown all through this season, helping win eight of nine matches. The toss was always going to be important and Steve Smith did his side a big favour in calling correctly. But that was just the trigger, not the sole determinant in the result, as some may argue. India would have factored in loss of the toss in any case.
In less than three days, however, India were hoist by their own petard, as it were. They were outbatted, outbowled, outfielded: totally outplayed, and left stupefied by the extraordinary turn of events. The dramatic first innings collapse when seven wickets were lost for 11 runs proved to be ruinous. But the second innings batting was no less distressing. Even if defeat was inevitable, a show of gumption would have not made the contest look so hopelessly one-sided. Australia’s success must be seen not as a function of winning the toss, but in the context of how well they fared in circumstances so alien to them and so familiar to their rivals.
This revealed hard-boiled preparation and fierce ambition. But while planning can be precise in theory, it is the execution in the middle that is paramount; more so when the odds are stacked against you. This entails being alert to opportunities at all times, showing strong nerves and raising the level of performance when it mattered. The Aussies rose to the challenge superbly, showing enterprise, intensity and resilience in equal measure. Steve O’Keefe with his immaculate control and accuracy made the most of the conditions. He would want this Pune pitch – which has given him a lease of life at the international level — gift-packed for him to take back home!
But no less crucial was Steve Smith’s contribution. As captain and batsman, he was exemplary, showing admirable ability to read the pitch and opponents, and turn them to his advantage in both roles. A century on this hazardous pitch was a mighty effort. Smith had his luck, but to play for that long on a pitch where every ball is a threat showed commitment, determination, and a deep sense of responsibility. It seems difficult to imagine that India who had looked so good, perhaps the best team in the world in recent months, could surrender so easily. So what went wrong?
I will desist from being overly critical. It could be that the team’s not seen a crisis in the last 16-18 months. Everything has come easily and the players became over anxious when things started to go wrong. Some strokes played — or not played — and the shoddy catching betrayed this anxiousness. It could perhaps also be that the players were not mentally ready for such a determined show by the Aussies. Whether this is a one-off situation, an aberration depends on how India shape from here. Whatever India thought were Australia’s weaknesses, have turned out to be their strengths; what were seen as India’s strengths, were shown up to be weaknesses.
Clearly turning pitches no longer guarantee success. What’s even clearer is that the pendulum has swung dramatically Australia’s way and Kohli & Co have to do all the catching up in the series. This calls for a lot of re-strategizing, introspection and regrouping. The real test of mettle and character of the team begins now....