Blaming this weakened Australian side or the MCG pitch is glossing over India’s brilliance
The narrative of this Boxing Day Test had been written in stone and handed down as gospel days, even weeks, before the first ball had taken its second bounce.
On soil no more fit for use than Chernobyl farmland Australia and India would play out a lifeless draw.
Consequently there would be hysterical outcry about the MCG’s annual snoozefest, including calls by tough-on-crime politicians for the curator to be stoned in Federation Square.
Then on to the SCG with the series happily tied at 1-1, a grandstand finish guaranteed and the Boxing Day Test pushed to the furthest recesses of the memory like a childhood maths exam or a failed internet date.
So when India batted doggedly for almost two days on a pitch so reportedly lacking in life it was widely assumed Glenn McGrath could have held up an end using a swizzle stick as a bat, the most pessimistic prophecies seemed to have been fulfilled.
Pick your storyline: Dud pitch, boring match, damning ICC report pending or — for our eternally parochial West Australian brethren — proof positive the Boxing Day Test should be shipped to Perth.
Except those who leapt to the (in most seasons understandable) conclusion this Test was consigned to a deadly dull draw after two days overlooked a couple of truths that were inconvenient to the “dud pitch” narrative.
Cheteshwar Pujara and the other India batsmen showed how to build an innings in Test cricket. (AAP: Julian Smith)
India had batted very well in accumulating 7-443 from 169.4 overs, even allowing for the benign conditions and a tiring Australian attack; and Australia had hardly batted at all.
Inevitably, during what was, for the most part, a cold-water-in-the-face day three for Australian cricket, one thing would make the other achingly obvious.
Australia’s abject total of 151 from a club cricket quota of 66.5 overs would bring the sobering realisation how well India had handled conditions that suited skills and temperaments developed on dry sub-continental pitches, but that needed to be conquered nonetheless.
As one Australian batsman after another sacrificed his innings to a rash shot or momentary lapse of concentration, the patience, perseverance and skill applied at length by Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and debutant Mayanka Agarwal on that supposedly “easy” pitch became more pronounced.
This was only a lifeless wicket if you didn’t hoik a soft catch to fine leg as Marcus Harris did after making a composed start, or waft across the line as Travis Head managed to do in throwing away a similarly encouraging beginning.
Australia’s Mitchell Marsh walks off after being dismissed for 9. (AP: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)
Although the shot most symbolic of Australia’s woeful display would be Shaun Marsh playing across and missing a slow full toss from Jaspir Bumrah and being trapped in front on the last ball before lunch.
This not only gave new meaning to the term “buffet ball”, it removed — like most of the Australian dismissals — any blame from the pitch given the cut surface had no interaction with the ball during Marsh’s untimely removal.
Which is not to underestimate the skill and craft of the Indian bowlers in setting the traps into which the Australians routinely fell, particularly Bumrah whose figures of 6-33 were justifiable, if somewhat extravagant, reward for his craft.
But as well as India bowled, Australia failed the obvious examination it would always confront in this Test. Could a depleted batting line-up put down its collective heads, bat for sessions, not merely overs, and grind out a score that proved the pitch truly was as dead as the reports of its demise suggested?
Those groping for excuses for Australia’s reckless batting posited the toss won by India had played an unusually large role in the likely result, a claim that contains the unfounded assumption Australia would have batted as well and for as long as India had over the first two days. This is not supported by any evidence in this series so far.
It also ignores the fact Australia’s support staff hinted strongly the hosts would have bowled had they won the toss, a decision that might have added humiliation to ignominy.
As it was, the late clattering of Indian wickets on day three helped wash the bad taste left by the Australian batting from the mouths of those in the MCG crowd who had not retired to a bar to do the same thing.
But unless you believe the same Australian batting line-up that succumbed so meekly is suddenly capable of conquering conditions that had seemingly deteriorated by the time Patrick Cummins took the Indian top order apart with a brilliant spell, that effort seems in vain.
More likely with India holding a lead of 346 and five wickets in hand, this Test will give the MCG curators a welcome reprieve and instead prove another prophecy made before this series — that Australia without its best two batsmen and a handy opener is no match for the world’s top-ranked team in conditions that demand batsmen dig deep and bat long.
This Australian batting line-up has two days to prove otherwise, or it will head to the SCG needing an unlikely victory to save Australia’s unbeaten home record against India.