February 23, 2017 - 6:26pm
On a pitch so dry it resembled the surface of Mars to Shane Warne, which looked unlike any he had seen in India according to Ravi Shastri, it was a fast bowler who came away with the richest haul. Umesh Yadav's combination of pace and reverse swing fetched him four wickets as Australia managed 256 for 9 in Pune.
A sizeable chunk of that total came off the blade of Matt Renshaw. The 20-year-old playing his first Test away from home made 68 off 156 balls either side of retiring ill with a stomach bug in the first session. Not many of his team-mates can match his composure or his patience. Both those attributes served him well in conditions where sharp spin and startling bounce were the norm instead of the exception.
If such was the case on the first day, imagine having to bat last, which India have to if the match goes that long. So putting up a big total in the first innings was vital after Australia won the toss and chose to bat. They might want to get closer to 300, but the total they have already is nothing to scoff at. Mitchell Starc is a clear and present threat, especially with the expectation of variable bounce. He smashed 57 not out off 58 balls himself to make sure when he gets the ball in hand, he has enough of a cushion to go all out. Nathan Lyon and Steve O'Keefe, too, might fancy their chances of exploiting a surface where footmarks were popping up by the 10th over of the opening day.
Australia had done excellent work in the morning. Despite the alien conditions, they realised that on a strip prone to turn, the best way to survive is to not chase the ball. Protect middle stump, ensure you are behind the one that holds its line, play late and use soft hands, and when the ball deviates, it will only leave you beaten and red-faced, not red-faced and back in the hut.
These virtues helped Warner and Renshaw last 27.2 overs together. The 82 runs they made were the result of their ability to both tip and run, and thwack and stand back. Case in point was in the 25th over: R Ashwin harassed the outside edge and was smashed to the square leg boundary all in the space of minutes. Or the 42nd over, when Ravindra Jadeja bowled a long hop to Steven Smith and was pulled to the midwicket fence.
Often India had to turn to their quickest bowler and Umesh was happy to oblige. His pace has worked against him in the past, making good balls stray down wrong lines and result in boundaries. Now, though, he has improved on his accuracy and by bowling wicket-to-wicket he makes sure the reverse swing he gets is always a threat.
Umesh bowled David Warner off the inside edge with his second ball of the match for 38 - after the batsman had been bowled off a no-ball on 20. Even as Australia tried to regroup Renshaw raced off the field, retiring ill for 36. Umesh was on a hat-trick in the final session having O'Keefe caught behind, with Wriddhiman Saha leaping several feet in the air, diving full-length to his right and snagging a one-hander for the ages, and then Lyon lbw next ball.
Starc's belligerence, however, reset the balance of the match. The slog sweep was his most profitable shot and he also took care to farm the strike. So effectively was he that Josh Hazlewood made only one run of the 51 that was put on by the tenth wicket.
As well as looking for big hits, Australia were diligent in picking up singles whenever they were available and for a long time they were able to dilute the threat of India's spinners. But, maintaining that level of performance over after over after over is the challenge of playing Test cricket in India. Making it tougher still were Ashwin and Jadeja with their remarkable accuracy. And eventually home advantage began to tell.
Two wickets in two overs before tea - Jadeja pinning Peter Handscomb lbw with an arm ball and Ashwin trapping Smith at mid-on - brought India back into the contest. It was the result of a session's worth of tight bowling enabled by clever captaincy.
Virat Kohli had a midwicket and a mid-on for the offspinners against Smith and it seemed every time the batsman came down the track to hit with the turn, he found those men. With runs coming at a premium - 69 in 30 overs after lunch - Smith chose to take those fielders on and chipped the ball in the air. He couldn't time it properly and found Kohli himself at mid-on. It was a transparent trap and the Australian captain, despite 94 balls of determined and purposeful batting, played right into it. Earlier, Kohli placing himself at leg slip proved equally profitable, as Jayant Yadav tempted Shaun Marsh to sweep at a flatter delivery, a risky ploy considering the extra bounce on offer, and was caught off the back of the bat.
Not giving in to dot-ball pressure is hard work in the subcontinent, especially on a deck where a ball with your name is never far off. Renshaw, though, fitness issues notwithstanding, was up to the challenge. He even felt confident enough to charge at Jadeja and loft him for six over long-on. That's not an easy job considering the left-arm spinner is the ideal man, because of his ability to bowl quick through the air, to exploit a pitch affording rich turn.
Minor miracles have followed Australia in the past 24 hours. They managed to be in two places almost at once. They batted remarkably well early on in conditions they historically struggle to deal with. A lower-order rally was probably par for the course.