India vs Australia: Final session swings Test away from India
Third Test. Third day. Third session. “This is it… this session decides the outcome of this match,” commented Shane Warne, a man who had decided several outcomes at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The great leg-spinner’s prophecy --- made on air even as the Indians retook the field after tea to begin the second innings of this Test --- wasn’t wrong.
What made the Sydney game hinge so heavily on its ninth session? Here’s a quick recap of the causal effects. On what should’ve been India's moving day, the visitors simply didn’t press on from a relatively strong overnight position, and ended up conceding a first innings lead of 94. Coming into the final session of Saturday, the game was in no way even (Australia were certainly ahead), but at least there was a semblance of a fulcrum for either team to pivot.
That already-skewed balance was further and heavily tilted in the direction of the hosts in the last two hours of play when Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne – men who had built a stand of 202 runs in the first innings – took off from where they had left. They added another 68 unbeaten runs for their new stand, this partnership giving Australia a commanding lead of 197, with ample wickets and time to nose ahead in the series as well.
For Labuschagne (batting on 47) and Smith (on 29) to be there in the first place, India had to get rid of Australia’s openers, which they did with relative ease. Mohammed Siraj put an early end to the innings of young Will Pucovski -- the debutant not getting away with drops behind the stumps this time around, mainly due to the presence of substitute keeper Wriddhiman Saha.
But Rishabh Pant wasn’t the only Indian to go missing on the field after copping an injury while batting; Ravindra Jadeja too took a blow to his bowling thumb that could rule him out of the series. And the void of a bowler who took four first-innings wickets would soon be felt.
Pucovski had departed in the sixth over of the innings and in the ninth -- Ravichandran Ashwin’s first -- so did the struggling David Warner. Ashwin's second ball, seemingly a slider, made Warner employ the sweep. But the ball jumped past his bat and his pad came in the way, as DRS would later show, of the bail. It was the 10th time Ashwin had dismissed the Australian opener in Test cricket. It was also Ashwin’s 193rd wicket of a left-hander in Tests, the most ever.
India had the early wickets they desperately needed, but in walked Smith – fresh from his century in the first innings – and joined Labuschagne, who had already gotten off to a brisk start. Smith, however, would have to start his new innings against Ashwin, who was single-handedly responsible for dismissing him for two close-to-nothing scores in this series. The first ball was whipped through midwicket to get off the mark. But it was evident that the evening’s contest had now been distilled to a face-off between Ashwin and Smith – the winner would almost certainly swing the momentum his team’s way.
Ashwin nearly did just that with the first ball of his second over. Both umpire and captain Ajinkya Rahane didn’t look convinced with Ashwin’s appeal for leg-before. But when Ashwin forced a review from Rahane, the projection showed the ball kissing the edge of leg stump. Had the appeal been upheld in the first place, Smith would have been dismissed for 2.
Almost immediately, the unofficial leader of India’s bowling attack, Jasprit Bumrah, was brought on and he operated in tandem with Ashwin – a pace-spin ploy that had worked miracles for Rahane and India in the win at Melbourne. But on Saturday, Labuschagne was prepared for everything thrown at him. He swept and cut India's lone spinner for seven runs in the space of two balls after the drinks break, before flicking Bumrah for another boundary in the following over.
That smatter of quick runs took Labuschagne to 33, from just 41 deliveries. The Aussies were hurtling along, dragging India’s chances along with them.
Ashwin’s spell would last a further two overs only, removed from the attack after Smith ran down the wicket and smoked him for a cover-driven four in his penultimate over and then rocked back and cut him for three more runs in his sixth and final over of the day.
This is perhaps where the inexperience of India’s bowling attack was truly exposed. Debutant Navdeep Saini and one-Test-old Siraj couldn’t be faulted for their efforts, but it was easy pickings for the two batsmen in prime Sydney form. “We are really missing Jadeja,” Cheteshwar Pujara would later say into the spider camera. “We are a bowler short at the moment and he got four wickets in the first innings. So we miss him, especially.”
What does India have to do to pull this back, Pujara was asked. “Pick up early wickets tomorrow (Sunday) morning, and not concede too many runs in the first session,” he said, which was precisely India’s hope and mantra before going into the pivotal final session of this third day as well.