Australia and India begin 2019 exactly how they ended 2018, as Cheteshwar Pujara dominates
Nathan Lyon’s only wicket of the day came when Mayank Agarwal mistimed a slog. (AP: Rick Rycroft)
Few Australian sporting teams would have been happier to see the back of 2018 than the men’s cricket team.
While most of the resolutions were made in October with the release of the Longstaff Report, the dismal slide to defeat against India in Melbourne would have left the team begging for the clock to hit midnight on the 31st. Surely 2019 would be different; certainly it couldn’t get any worse.
Instead, like all of us, Australia has woken up in January to find it is basically the same as it was the night before. Superficial alterations and good intentions are one thing, but it’s much harder to change what’s underneath.
And so it began in Sydney, Australian bowlers gently and politely probing without the threat of any swing or excessive bounce, Indian batsmen resisting and eventually prospering with a frustrating level of ease.
It was all very familiar. Had you understandably fallen asleep halfway through Boxing Day and woken up today, you’d have comfortably assumed you were watching the same game.
There was a sense of inevitability around this day of cricket from the second the toss fell in Virat Kohli’s favour. Australia’s bowling quartet has been ground into the dust over the course of this summer, paying for the sins of the batsmen and being relied upon to carry an otherwise inexperienced team.
The simmering public angst towards the side, which has steadily been building all summer, seems to have now reached the once-untouchable bowlers. The criticism is somewhat understandable, but more than a little unfair — the only time India has really got hold of the Australian attack this series was the first innings in Melbourne, on what can kindly be considered an unhelpful pitch.
By this stage of the series, the four of them — Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon and even Pat Cummins — must be running on empty. Their performance on day one in Sydney wasn’t bad, just a little laboured. The really good balls a bit fewer and much further between.
Meanwhile, selections in 2019 remain as utterly confusing as ever, with the national panel sticking to its formula of having absolutely no formula whatsoever.
As it turns out, Australia’s second spinner won’t be bowling a whole lot of spin — probably for the best, on today’s evidence — and will instead take the immense responsibility of batting at three.
If Marnus Labuschagne is a horses-for-courses selection for his part-time spin bowling on a pitch that hasn’t really spun for decades, then it’s surely the wrong horse for the wrong course.
The pressure on the young man when he eventually arrives to the crease to bat will be immense, almost unfairly so — there is certainly no nurturing of a promising young career going on here, rather throwing some talent off a cliff to see if it’s strong enough to survive.
But above all, and this cannot be stressed enough, Australia has once again found itself up against what remains a truly sensational touring team.
Australia seemingly waving the white flag at Pujara
What more can be said about Cheteshwar Pujara, Australia’s old acquaintance it couldn’t possibly have forgot?
A modern marvel from a bygone era, Pujara’s unrelenting stubbornness has now confounded Australia for more than 1,700 minutes and 1,000 balls in this series. While Tim Paine’s men have at least tried to put some plans into action for the other batsmen — bouncers for Mayank Agarwal, wide half-volleys for Kohli — it appears they’ve all but given up for Pujara.
He has three of the series’ four centuries, and is miles ahead in nearly every other crucial batting stat. No player, not even Kohli, has looked as consistently in control, so assured of his own methods.
He’s the anchor of every partnership, the pragmatist to keep his more offensive-minded team-mates grounded, the safe pair of hands to handle any sticky situations. He’s everything Australia has missed this summer.
And if he hasn’t batted Australia out of the fourth Test already, he’s certainly put India in an enviable position. Australia has passed 300 only once so far this series and it would hardly be a shock if it remains that way come the end of this contest.
Pujara will resume on day two on 130, having been at the crease for all but nine balls of the Test so far. Hanuma Vihari, who looked compact and dangerous for his unbeaten 39, will join him with the wildly explosive Rishabh Pant and more than capable Ravi Jadeja still to come.
So Australia, having missed its first chance to start the new year afresh, likely feels even further behind in this match than the scoreboard suggests.
Turns out it’s going to take a whole lot more than the opening of a new calendar to fix this cricket team.