India v Australia, 1st Test, Pune, 3rd day February 25, 2017

A mixed-up tale of two captains

Steven Smith's Australia were supposed to be left distraught by a nightmarish Pune pitch. Virat Kohli's India were supposed to continue on their merry way. That's not what happened
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Australia did not quite follow their script in Pune © AFP

The left-arm orthodox spin floats with that familiar arc. The batsman, whose team is struggling, knows that he has to be patient to score big. He has been in the middle long enough to know how to handle the spinners who have already taken out his top order. As the ball pitches, just around the off-stump line, he decides not to play a shot. The ball crashes into the stumps, and the fielding team is ecstatic while the batsman is bereft.

That was Ravindra Jadeja bowling to Steven Smith in the fourth and final Test in Delhi, 2013.

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Whether this was a doctored pitch, or just one that the groundsman got horribly wrong, it was clear that the best time to bat on it was always going to be day one. The toss suddenly became so important; if Australia were to lose it, it was hard to see how they could win the match. But Australia also won all four tosses in 2013. For India, who lost the toss a few times against England, it would make the inevitable victory just that little bit tougher.

When Kohli brought R Ashwin on for the second over, when the ball was ragging a few overs later, and when the pitch started having little explosions, it didn't look like the toss would matter. Australia were having trouble laying bat on ball from the massive spin.

According to CricViz, Australia played and missed 44 times in the first innings and 50 in the second. That is basically a play and miss every second over. But not only did this not get them out, it didn't even seem to create many worries for them.

Perhaps the Indian spinners bowled too short, and apparently Australia were playing inside the line on purpose, but that first session ended up being exactly what happened all match.

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Australia struggled to put on a big total in the first innings, they gave away soft wickets, were undone by themselves more than the bowling or pitch, and, at nine wickets down, they were struggling. Then Mitchell Starc hit out while Virat Kohli made a series of choices.

He chose to take Ashwin off, take the new ball, give that ball to Jayant Yadav, and by the time Ashwin came back on, Australia had put on 30 runs. They would put on another 30 runs after that. Starc's hitting accounted for over 20% of Australia's total. And instead of ending day one on a high, India ended it frustrated; it was the first time that Australia were on top.

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Starc was bowling fast, his wicket of Pujara came from pace and savage bounce. Australia were just starting to get a sniff, but there was one man they not only wanted to get out, they needed to get him out. Kohli's first ball was just outside off stump and was left with complete ease. He might have only been in the middle for a minute, and facing one of the world's best bowlers, but he looked like he was over a hundred already.

His second ball was wide and full, it didn't really need to have a shot played off it. But a cover drive rarely needs to be played. Maybe that was Australia's plan: tempt him early, he will want to hit the ball, dominate, show who is in charge, whose world Australia are living in. So a wide fast tempter might just work. He chased it, late, and the ball took the edge and went to slip.

Australia might have thought they had a chance to win this Test before that ball; after it, they knew they could.

When Steve O'Keefe was made into R Ashwin... © AFP

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India were 70 for 3 at lunch. Ajinkya Rahane was still looking a bit out of form and KL Rahul was verging towards out of control, but with sensible batting in the middle session, they could be only a hundred runs behind Australia by tea. But it didn't look like Rahul wanted to do sensible; either he was doing game theory and decided that Starc had to go, or he just got carried away. He was up and over the slips, he was through the slips, just past gully... if that looked reckless, it was nothing compared to his shot off O'Keefe.

Taking on long-off when your non-striker is not in good nick, the last two specialist batsmen in the line-up are at the crease, your team is almost two-hundred runs behind the opposition, on a pitch that is probably only going to get tougher to bat on, is just, well... what... something. It's something. There needs to be a word for something being at once bizarre and crazy, because this was grotesquely demented.

Had it been followed by Rahane finding form, a plucky 30 from Wriddhiman Saha, and a 70 from Ashwin, it may not have felt like a big moment. Instead, Rahane followed two balls later, Saha two balls after that, and Ashwin a whole three balls later. India had turned O'Keefe into Ashwin.

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People were claiming Smith's hundred to be the best they had seen before Smith had even raised his bat. And there is no doubting the skill or problem solving that went into it. Australian batsmen are not bred to make runs on pitches like this - they usually just stare at them slack-jawed, complaining about their dryness.

But you cannot talk of the hundred without mentioning the many, many, chances that had allowed it. Smith was missed either three or four times, depending on your thoughts about what a chance is. He also had a DRS call overturned. While that makes his innings harder to qualify in terms of greatness, it's clear as anything that India stuffed up.

Australia had just showed them a masterclass of catching - Peter Handscomb alone was a human highlight reel - and now India, needing to take all ten chances, ended up having to create 15 of them. You cannot lose the toss, allow the tail a rearguard, collapse in a hysterical heap and then drop Steven Smith once. India needed to be perfect in the second half of the game; instead they were somehow every bit as abjectly awful as Australia were supposed to be.

Indian cricket is going through a dream run that no other team in the history of cricket has ever gone through. Mostly because no other team has ever played this many teams in such a short space of time, and, even if they did, chances are they wouldn't have won this much.

The Indian team looked like a giant snowball getting bigger and bigger, and the visiting teams looked like scared badgers in the face of an angry man with a shotgun. It was all a bit like an LSD hallucination of cricketing perfection. The team, the country, couldn't believe what was happening; serious foes became battered memes, commentators the new cheerleaders, and the public made so much noise that any whispers of the fact that this was all happening at home were drowned out by a tri-coloured hurricane of awesomeness.

This is India's season, India's world; you come here not at your peril, but to perish.

Australia were splendid in the field. India, not quite © AFP

When Australia were last here in 2013, they were in disarray; they were about to lose a coach, they had misplaced a player mid-tour. This time, too, the signs pointed to another horror series. In Australia, there was a complete collapse of belief. A South African team that couldn't keep its stars went through them. A keeper was dropped because he wasn't as hard as his replacement. A guy famous for eating a sandwich, a bloke with a weird technique and a kid were given a go. There was a crisis of faith in the way they played cricket.

Even when they got it right, they almost allowed the Pakistan tail to chase a world-record total against them. And that was before they thought about the fact they hadn't won in India for 4502 days - back when Matt Renshaw was eight. They had lost their last nine Tests in Asia, and their last win here was 2003 days ago, when Steven Smith was averaging 28. They were picking random spinners, like they always did on their bad tours, putting their hopes in cricketers that didn't seem to have the skills to survive a normal Asian tour, leave alone taking down the Godzilla of India.

Such was the inevitability of the whole thing, it seemed like it should hardly take place, like we should just etch in a 3-0 or 4-0 and instead use the time to make both teams travel around India promoting healthy living and the benefits of physical exercise.

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The left-arm orthodox spin floats with that familiar arc. Kohli's team is struggling, he does show patience, and he has been in the middle long enough to get a handle on the spinners who have taken out his top order. He thrusts his leg forward decisively, he raises his bat above his head, and he watches the ball carefully. He sees it bounce around off stump, he sees it pass under his nose, and then it disappears. And there is just a noise.

First a rattle, then a scream - of joy.

Kohli stays in the leave-alone position, he just brings his bat down and rests on it. His eyes go to the pitch, back to the broken stumps, he repeats this several times, back and forth, in confusion, shock, disappointment. It's like he believes that by continually looking back, he can somehow magically change what has happened. And why wouldn't he believe in magic - he has seen it for 19 Tests. It included one of cricket's greatest runs, in which the great cricketers on earth bowed down at his feet, in which teams tamely rolled over, in which India didn't just go to No. 1, they danced down the track and smashed it out of the park.

And now, Virat the Merciless had just let himself be bowled.

Behind him Australia celebrated like they had just won the match, and they had. They had slayed their demons, their critics, the best team in the world, and their most feared surface. Smith was ecstatic; later he would say: "Everyone expected India to win 4-0. Well, that can't happen anymore." The least they have done is stave off complete humiliation; the most, well, they can now truly dare to dream.

That staring, distraught, destroyed captain was supposed to be Smith. It wasn't.

This was Virat Kohli and Steven Smith in the first Test in Pune, 2017.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • AussieNSW on March 2, 2017, 22:03 GMT

    @Chillbill_Pande. Turn it up mate! "The Aussies were never in control but somehow prevailed" What were you watching? The batters honestly said that they never felt "in" which is to be expected of any batsman on what is now officially been labelled a poor pitch by the ICC. If we weren't in control what sort of nosedive and tail spin were the over rated Indian line up in when they lost 7 for 11 to guys that turned the ball barely inches at time?! Control went our way from Kohlis first poor dismissal. Luck hardly comes into catching mate! Exercise your basic hand-eye skills. The ones our guys spend hours perfecting. I said at the start of the series that Aus were miles ahead of Ind in catching and fielding and got howled down about how good India now were. Rubbish to that! Their catching is probably worse than the humiliating exhibition put on in the field by Pakistan this summer. Our guys just have more all round skill, heart and fight and will go on to win this series as expected....

  • Tests-are-best.Bounderno:6 on February 28, 2017, 8:57 GMT

    It's very interesting to find different styles of journalism appealing to some readers although not to others; I fall into the latter category with this article. Be that as it may, you cannot please all of the people all of the time. However, I have to congratulate the photographer for a superb shot at the top of the article. Made it all worthwhile.

  •   cricfan9093377689 on February 28, 2017, 8:50 GMT

    This could be the end of Indian supremacy in their own back yard .After such a thrashing whos to say Australia cant win 3-0 or 4-0.Of course they can.India are badly if not fatally wounded.

  • singhikv on February 28, 2017, 8:32 GMT

    I have been reading everywhere that India is on a dream run, winning 19 tests on the trot. How many of those tests have been played outside India?

  • liz1558 on February 28, 2017, 8:24 GMT

    The series has started like England's tour of WI in 1989/90. England were a shambles after humiliation at home to Australia (could've been 6-0 without the intervention of the weather), and went to WI expecting to get beaten 5-0. It was Sky's first coverage of a Test tour, and came with the advert: 'watch England's young lions roar', which was utterly laughable. But England won the first Test, and were only some dodgy gamesmanship away from going 2-0. Eventually WI recovered their sense of place and won the series 2-1. It would be good to see Australia win here, but the odds are against it.

  • cricfan9093377689 on February 28, 2017, 8:05 GMT

    Always hearing how much better the indian spinners are.When you look at their away game figures they are not exactly crash hot.Ashwin averages over 50 in Australia, and near mid 30s in England.India will be badly beaten in Australia -as usual.

  • cricfan67643912 on February 28, 2017, 2:35 GMT

    A number of readers have commented that Australia simply got lucky. OK, maybe. To the tune of 33 runs? Stretching it.

    I trust the team purchased some lottery tickets afterwards, given their extreme good luck.

    btw, I think they planned very well, trained very well in Dubai, and executed very well. If against all expectations, mine included (and I am an Australian cricket follower since the 1969 when I followed Aust vs India when I happened to be in India with my parents)

  •   Hari Das on February 28, 2017, 2:11 GMT

    Mr Pande and to other indian fans ... who still say Aus win was a fluke and former 's analysis of if 's and but's are not going to win a game... why don't we agree that OZ outbatted , outbowled and outfielded our Team... stop this iff's and but's analysis ... mind you they won the match with in 3 days ... can't expect Kholi to win every match for us , stop cribbing and appreciate the visitor's performance in the 1st Test.

  • aaeithen on February 27, 2017, 18:13 GMT

    Chullbull_pandey is absolutely correct. It was all luck, that assuies win. The stats he provided, proved that, I will dare to say, that stat actually prove that INDIA actually win the test. So, it's 1-0 to India at the moment and they will crash aus by 5-0 this series. Go blues, you are the best ever team in history of test cricket. Ranking doesn't lie.

  • johnthekiwi on February 27, 2017, 15:03 GMT

    I'll be really interested to see how this result influences the preparation of upcoming wickets. India thumped NZ and ENG on very traditional IND decks because 1/ they were just straight up more talented, and 2/ the turn when it showed up wasn't outrageous and therefore didn't help the average spinners the visitors had. The problem for India is that they have to play catch up and the moment they move to more attritional decks they have to realize that the Oz quicks are a mile ahead of anything they faced earlier in the season. Perhaps that is more desirable than making NL and SOK the main threats. Dunno but the Oz victory has put the cat amongst the pigeons and the fact that the Pune curator and certain BCCI honchos are AWOL speaks volumes. I wonder if the Aussies would dare to bring in Bird for Lyon and Maxwell for Marsh (S) if there was 4-6 mm of grass in Bangalore?

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