Will Pucovski was impressive on debut, while Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith found some form to put Australia in a solid position on a rain-curtailed day 1 of the third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday (January 7). The Australian batsmen finally showed some intent and managed to put pressure on R Ashwin and Co. The hosts have still not run away with the game and India will have to be at their absolute best on day 2 if they want to stop Australia from posting a massive first-innings total.
A total of four hours were lost because of persistent rain and only 55 overs were possible on the first day. Opting to bat, Australia lost David Warner early but Pucovski (62) and Labuschagne put on 100 runs for the second wicket to lay a perfect platform for the middle-order. Meanwhile, India looked far from their best and dropped a couple of easy chances on the field. When stumps were drawn, Australia were 166/2 in 55 overs, with Labuschagne and Smith batting on 67 and 31 respectively.
NOT-SO-HAPPY RETURN FOR WARNER
Australia were desperate and moved heaven and earth to ensure Warner featured in the third Test, even if the southpaw was not 100 per cent fit. The home side also handed a debut to Pucovski. The last time Australia opened with four different openers in successive Tests in a series was in 1985/86, and that tells you how badly Australia wanted some runs at the top. There were talks about Australia lacking intent in the first two Tests and the newly-formed opening combination of Warner and Pucovski tried to be more "lively" from the word go, maybe a bit too much.
There was not much pace on the surface and Warner announced his arrival with a solid punch through the square region. There was a visible discomfort in his groin while running those quick singles and the left-hander wanted to get a feel of things by putting bat to almost every delivery, which eventually led to his downfall. The 34-year-old tried to drive Mohammed Siraj's away-swinging delivery without any footwork and ended up edging it to Cheteshwar Pujara at first slip. Australia frightfully wanted Warner to do well but that didn't happen. He looked rusty, and in a bit of a hurry, and was dismissed for just 5.
PUCOVSKI'S EVENTFUL DEBUT
The new ball was doing a bit but Pucovski looked solid, especially with his defence. India were aware of Pucovski's shortcomings against short-pitched bowling and the 22-year-old was vulnerable against a couple of short deliveries that were thrown at him in the first 30 minutes. The right-hander was constantly walking across the stumps and the Indian bowlers soon started bowling straight to him. The pressure was on Pucovski and Labuschagne before rain made an appearance and ensured only 7.1 overs was possible in the first session.
There was no cricket for almost four hours but Pucovski and Labuschagne started well after the long delay. Pucovski in particular was trying to play everything straight but Jasprit Bumrah was impeccable with his line and length and kept testing both the batsmen. Pucovski however pounced on every scoring opportunity and managed to keep the scoreboard ticking. Just when the two were starting to look comfortable, Indian captain Ajinkya Rahane introduced his ace spinner R Ashwin into the attack.
As expected, the offspinner had a leg-slip-and-forward-short-leg trap for both Pucovski and Labuschagne and got a decent amount of turn with the hard ball, but the two batsmen countered him pretty decently. While Labuschagne was willing to use his feet, Pucovski was more than happy to wait on the back foot. Ashwin however was constantly mixing his length and pace and was outstanding with his variations. The offspinner would have had Pucovski when he was on 26, with a drifter, if Rishabh Pant wouldn't have dropped a sitter behind the stumps.
Pucovski kept riding his luck as Pant gave him another life two overs later, this time off Siraj. The paceman managed to hurry Pucovski with a well-directed bouncer and the right-handed batsman gloved it to the wicketkeeper but Pant once again ended up making a mess of it. Ashwin and Siraj weren't rewarded for their tight bowling and the former in particular looked a bit frustrated about it. The veteran offspinner started looking for new ways to get a breakthrough but ended up offering a couple of freebies that allowed Labuschagne and Pucovski to ease the pressure.
Debutant Navdeep Saini was finally introduced into the attack in the 31st over and Pucovski greeted him with a couple of boundaries. He slapped the first delivery through covers before hammering one towards cow corner to complete his half-century, becoming the 82nd Australian to score a fifty on his debut. There were plenty of chances created, including a close run-out opportunity, but India failed to grab those and Australia managed to get through a session without losing a single wicket.
Having scored 34 runs in the last four overs of the second session, the tide was starting to turn in Australia's favour but Saini, after leaking 15 in his first two overs, pinned Pucovski right in front of the stumps early in the third session.
SMITH TAKES THE ATTACK TO ASHWIN
There was spark in Smith's eyes when he walked out to bat at No. 4 and the batting maestro announced his arrival with an authoritative straight drive. Smith was positive from the word go and was in no mood of allowing "Ashwin to dictate terms". The crafty right-hander was willing to take on Ashwin and straightaway ran down the track to smash him for a boundary over mid-on. Having been dismissed twice by Ashwin in three innings, Smith didn't allow the offspinner to set an attacking field and managed to put him under some pressure.
Meanwhile, Labuschagne too looked a lot more solid and got to his fifty with a superb cover drive. The fourth-ranked Test batsman might have got scores of 47, 6, 48 and 28 in the first two encounters but didn't look at his best. However, Labuschagne batted a lot more freely today and looked in complete control from the word go.