Day One: Labuschagne's century, drop chances put Australia slightly ahead

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14 Jan 2021 | 11:30 PM
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Somesh Agarwal

Day One: Labuschagne's century, drop chances put Australia slightly ahead

For the visitors, Natarajan picked two wickets while Sundar accounted for Smith

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This is the 100th Test for one of the Aussie bowlers. The combined experience of the five bowlers India put together ahead of this match was four Tests. Still, there was an air of a contest waiting to unfold. That in itself is the bottom line of the series.

One has to go way back to 1946 when India fielded a bowling attack as inexperienced as this. Then, they had played only seven Tests in all, that too 10 years back. 

At the toss, Ajinkya Rahane called this adversity an opportunity. This opportunity could have made a good day for India if not for the dropped catches yet again. India put down Marnus Labuschagne for the eighth time in the series. He went on register back-to-back centuries on his home ground. Cameron Green rode his luck with a dropped chance late in the day. However, with an almost second or third-team attack, India did well to not let Australia get away with the Test after winning the toss. 

In a contrast of fortunes, Shardul Thakur, who was otherwise average throughout, took a wicket off his first ball. While Navdeep Saini injured his groin on the ball when India’s skipper dropped Labuschagne at gully. He did not return to bowl all day and might miss the rest of the Test.

Two debutants – T Natarajan and Washington Sundar – were impressive. In a continued fairytale, Natarajan accounted for two wickets including that of Labuschagne. Sundar dismissed Steve Smith as his first Test wicket who fell prey to an offspinner yet again.

Getting a taste of Test cricket just two Tests ago, Mohammed Siraj was the leader of the attack already. He bowled like one to start with. Angling one away from David Warner, he got him to play a loose shot outside off. Rohit Sharma at second slip dived to his right to get India off to a dream start.

Natarajan - 300th Test player for India and the first one to debut in all three formats in the same series - started each of his first two overs with a no-ball. But that was the only error he made in the first hour. He was tight to both left and right-handers and looked in control.

The first ball for Thakur in this Test was his 11th in Test cricket. Playing a flick without waiting for the ball to reach him, Marcus Harris hit it in the air and into the hands of square leg. Australia were two-down before the first hour.

Thakur added another dimension to India's attack as he got shape away from the right-handers. But, Steve Smith soon signalled ominous signs for India as he hit him for successive boundaries on both sides of the wicket to transfer the pressure. The second one was the shot of the day as Smith waited for the ball to swing and drove it through the covers.

It is difficult to hold your fort against the two best batsmen going around for the most accomplished of bowlers. It is even more so in your first series, far from the conditions you are familiar with. Right after lunch, Smith and Labuschagne fed off the pacers' inexperience. Saini erred on the shorter side, Siraj on the batsmen’s legs. 

Then came the moment that might as well define the Test. In the first session, Sundar had bowled three tight overs. He continued with the R Ashwin line of attack, bowling on middle and leg. The first ball of his fourth over was full, turning into Smith. He flicked in the air to a thoughtfully placed Rohit at short midwicket who took another sharp catch.

In the next over, India dropped a catch and the bowler on the same ball. Bouncing off a length, the ball from Saini found Labuschagne's outside edge. If a partisan supporter of India had to wish a fielder to whom the ball should carry, the odds of him being Rahane are higher than others. Caught at an awkward height near his shoulder to his left at gully, Rahane fluffed a chance that would have stamped India's authority in the Test. On the contrary, there was Saini lying on the ground, clutching his right groin. He walked off the field, came back on after the drinks break but went back again. The injury list for India refuses to end. Their idea of playing four pacers thus proven right.

Labuschagne continued riding his luck and was dropped again. Natarajan - into his second spell that was equally tight as the first - bowled from around the wicket and got Labuschagne to drive. The edge fell on the fingertips of a diving Cheteshwar Pujara - who was deeper for Natarajan's pace - at first slip. 

An increase in aggression with Labuschagne having reached his fifty and a bowling change released the pressure created. Labuschagne and Matthew Wade hit 40 runs in the eight overs before Tea. Each of them hit Thakur for two boundaries in an over.

Throughout his innings, Labuschagne showed immense effectiveness on two shots. One was while pulling the pacers along the ground. The second was to move back and to his left against Sundar to make room to cut him through the off-side. This was in addition to his fluent drives through the covers and down the ground. His partner in the century fourth-wicket stand, Wade, made India pay whenever the bowlers were at his pads, which was often. 

It was a drive to a length ball from Siraj to the cover boundary that helped Labuschagne reach his fifth Test century, the first of this series. For a period of nine overs after Tea, the pair added 44 runs and seemed like taking India out of the Test on the first day itself. Then, some extra bounce and a loose shot brought India back.

It was the pull shot to which Labuschagne had complete control through his innings brought his downfall. He attempted to slice the pull to a Natarajan delivery, instead of playing over the bounce like he had all day. It resulted in him playing under the ball that flew in the air off a top edge into Rishabh Pant's gloves.

Wade's wicket was an over before a similar dismissal for Labuschagne. He was hurried into a pull shot and got a top edge himself. The ball hovered in the air before landing into the hands of Thakur at mid-on, giving Natarajan his first Test wicket.

Green was out to bat with an 84-run knock behind him. Though he clubbed India's pacers for sixes then, Justin Langer was more impressed with his shots down the ground. There were more of those from him today. He was also quick on his feet to hit Sundar down the ground in the period when India waited for the new-ball.

Tim Paine was on nought for the first 12 balls he faced. Then Sundar’s line of attack at the leg stump - designed for Smith but also natural for a white-ball specialist - helped the Aussie skipper collect a couple of boundaries.

The last over before when the second new ball was available was action-packed. Thakur added to India's list of drop catches when he failed to collect a return catch from Green. There was a bit more effort on the next ball that moved away and almost got Green's outside edge. He finished the over with a well-disguised inswinger that whistled past Green's stumps who was standing with his arms shouldered.

Bowling with the new ball late in the day, Siraj strung together two maiden overs. Natarajan was either too short or too wide as both batsmen Paine in particular - added some quick runs late in the day. Though India would be happy that things are under control as of now, they missed an opportunity to embarrass the side whose sixth bowling option – Labuschagne – has one Test wicket less than the combined tally of the Indian team going into the Test.

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India tour of Australia, 2020/21Australia vs India - 4th Test - Border-Gavaskar Trophy, 2020/21IndiaAustraliaMarnus LabuschagneSteven Peter Devereux SmithThangarasu NatarajanWashington Sundar

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