MCG is not an easy place to bowl on the first morning of a Test match. The batting average in the first innings of the Test match here since 2015 is 53.9 runs per wicket, the second highest for a ground having hosted at least three Tests.
India wanted to bat first to give themselves a morale boost after the Adelaide debacle. However, the coin did not flip in Ajinkya Rahane’s favor. Tim Paine won the toss and had no hesitation in opting to bat first. However, this MCG track was different. It was lively, with something for everyone and probably one of the best MCG tracks in a long time. India did everything in their control to push Australia on the back foot early and keep them there.
The lead bowlers of India's injury laden attack began the charge. Jasprit Bumrah hit the right spot throughout the first spell which read 5-2-6-1. He tested both the openers and eventually sent Joe Burns packing for a 10-ball duck, letting India start on a positive note.
While Umesh Yadav blew hot and cold, R Ashwin removed the other opener. Surprisingly, he was the first change bowler instead of the debutant, Mohammed Siraj. The decision paid rich dividends as Ashwin found most help from the pitch than anyone else in the morning session. Apart from dismissing Matthew Wade, he won the biggest battle of the day for India.
Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith were the giant walls in protecting an under fire Australian middle-order. Smith himself averaged 113.5 at MCG prior to this Test. Ashwin sent him back for a duck, getting Smith caught down the leg-side by Rahane at leg slip. It was a soft dismissal for someone of Smith’s calibre given the ball prior to his dismissal was also bowled down the leg-side, hence giving him a hint of the trap put in place. It is Smith’s first Test duck against India and his first overall since November, 2016.
Smith’s departure put Australia under pressure and it was elevated by a pitch which resembled Chepauk rather than MCG with its behaviour. Both Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja turned the ball sharply, though Ashwin was more accurate than the latter. Only three of the 14 overs between Drinks and Lunch were bowled by pacers, an anomaly in the first session of a Test outside subcontinent.
Labuschagne and Travis Head took Australia to Lunch with no further wickets. Labuschagne, though, survived a close LBW call in the last over before Lunch - off Ashwin - with the ball tracker overturning the on-field decision.
The pitch settled post Lunch and the Australians threatened to come back into the match. Labuschagne and Head added 86 runs for the fourth wicket as the stand-in skipper, Rahane provided them the cushion by not starting the second session with Bumrah.
Siraj, on his debut, was not at his best in the first spell. Alongside Umesh, he provided easy singles. Head cashed in to race from 8 off 50 balls to 38 off 85 at the drinks break. The break, however, marked the end of the honeymoon period for Australia with the bat. Bumrah soon dismissed Head and the Australian team never recovered thereafter.
Siraj rectified his line and length in his second spell. After returning figures of 6-0-24-0 in his first spell, he knocked back Australia with 9-2-16-2 in his second spell. His maiden Test wicket was Labuschagne who, like Smith, was caught down the leg-side - by the other debutant, Shubman Gill at backward square-leg. The second victim was Cameron Green post Tea.
Paine was pouched by Ashwin. He was the third victim of the day - to the off-spinner as well to the trap down the leg-side, getting caught by Hanuma Vihari at leg-slip. On a supposedly batting track, Australia were bereft of all their top seven with 155 runs on the board.
The last three wickets added 40 runs. Bumrah was the bowler of the innings with four scalps, while Ashwin had three crucial strikes with Siraj and Jadeja picking the the remaining three.
Bundled out for 195, the lowest first innings score at MCG since December 2012, Australia fought fire with fire with the new ball in their hand. Mitchell Starc bowled a terrific first over at the end of which he got the better of Mayank Agarwal for a duck. Gill faced a gruelling introduction to Test cricket from Pat Cummins on the other end. It took India three overs to get off the mark, through a silky off drive from Gill, which also opened his account in Test cricket.
Alongside Cheteshwar Pujara, he saw India through without any further damage. Gill, was, however, lucky to survive an outside edge off Cummins which was dropped by Labuschagne at third slip. Otherwise, he contributed 28 as India reached 36 for one at the end of the day’s play, 159 behind Australia, thus continuing a good day for the debutants.
Irony Alert: At the score of 36, India had lost the Adelaide Test. Today, ending the day at the same score, India are ahead in the game.