Australia flounders in the field against India, but opportunity awaits at the MCG
In this weird post-Christmas period where several days will all mould together into a week-long blur, day two in Melbourne really did continue as a longer, hotter extension of the first.
The painful pace of Wednesday was kept up on Thursday — presuming that is actually what day it is, who really knows? — as India, as is it has every right to in these conditions, batted Australia into cricketing oblivion using its powers of patience and technique instead of its flair and flourish.
It was an aggressively hot day in Melbourne, the sun belting down on the MCG with an intensity the Australian bowlers couldn’t maintain and the Indian batsmen rarely attempted.
And for the most part, it all spelled bad news for Australia.
There are few greater harbingers of cricketing misery than the third new ball. So determined was Australia to avoid looking that devil in the eye, it even stooped to giving Aaron Finch a few celebrity overs to delay the inevitable.
But eventually Tim Paine had to summon it, and all the baggage that comes with it — not just the shame of being kept in the field for 160 overs, but the physical impacts of such toil.
The end result is that India is ahead in the game, fresh and ready to bowl on a pitch getting ever so slightly less friendly to bat on, while a tired and bedraggled Australia is basically just fighting to maintain parity ahead of Sydney.
In a day of frustrations, the greatest for the hosts will have been the chances that slipped away — chances that while may not prove game-breaking, surrendered any opportunity Australia had of getting the match back on its own terms.
The first, a comical fumble from an inexplicably leaping Peter Siddle — on the field for just one over as a sub — was the worst of the lot.
The second, a missed attempt at a sharp snaffle by an out-of-position Travis Head, was probably the most forgivable. The last, a botched sliding chest mark from Pat Cummins, the most surprising.
But they all shared a common element — the poor bowler was Nathan Lyon, who could do little more than scream into his baggy green cap as the afternoon session got away from Australia.
Nathan Lyon was robbed of a few wickets by some poor fielding. (AP: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)
Australia has fielded well in this series, so the sudden and dramatic slip in standards was striking. India, on the other hand, will have seen the drops as reward for a plan well executed.
Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara batted the morning session with little alarm and few surprises, keeping any attacking instincts in check and playing the long game.
India never really felt the need for a period of desperate slogging to get the score up, as its objective was really just to keep Australia in the field for as long as possible in hopes of wearing the players down for the days to come.
Cheteshwar Pujara brought up his second century of the series before lunch. (AAP: Julian Smith)
It was rope-a-dope batting without a knockout punch. India was instead waiting for Australia to get so tired and confused it punched itself in the face — it did with its fielding, but fortunately not during its short stint at the crease.
Kohli’s declaration was excellent, the most attacking play so far in a watchful match, but Finch and Marcus Harris were up to the task of surviving a daunting evening challenge.
Now Australia’s task is clear. On a pitch that is occasionally skidding but mostly playing true, the Aussie top order simply needs to bat and bat and bat.
For players like Finch and Harris, day three presents a wonderful opportunity to ignore all the weight of a tense series and a crucial match and just be selfish. Bat for yourself, bat while refusing to get out, bat for a long, big score that could set up a Test career.
India’s determined effort has effectively set up the game so that only one team can win it. An equally strong first-innings performance by Australia would mean a draw is the only possible outcome.
It’s a slightly disappointing way to be discussing a match after two days, especially after the first two Tests kept all three results on the table until very late in the piece, but these are the cards we have been dealt.
India has held up its end of the bargain. It will win the Test and retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy if Australia does not hold up its.
So basically, it all rests on Australia’s top six. How do you feel about that?