Considering a Sydney New Years’ test looked as likely as snowfall in an Australian summer just a week ago, what unfolded over the past five days typified drama. From stunning debuts to questionable controversies, there were numerous talking points to discuss before all eyes turn to the Gabba on Friday.
Good Will Pucovski, and the golden hands of Smudge
For years it seems the Australian (and particularly Victorian) cricketing public have been praying for Pucovski to overcome his ongoing concussion and mental health problems and make his debut for his country. After plenty of tantalising moments, the wonderful moment finally happened for the young Vic, who then got to face the first ball of the test match alongside the returning David Warner.
It was a tough position for a debutant to be thrown into – his teammates had struggled to score quickly and heavily at the MCG, and the buck was thrown to Pucovski to get the score ticking over. With Warner out early, Pucovski’s maiden test half-century couldn’t have been more valuable. Instead of perishing alongside Warner and throwing the pressure onto Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, Pucovski rode his luck and took on India’s challenging bowlers. He continued to pull and cut effectively, while his driving game was crisp. He may not have reached the milestone that his older teammates did, but Pucovski’s innings was so vital – instead of coming in early, Smith got to wander to the crease in the final session of the first day with the score already in triple figures.
From there, Smith could execute his game plan of aggressive intent to perfection. He started with a bang, refusing to let Jasprit Bumrah or Ravichandran Ashwin get on top of him. He took the attack to them, driving often and using his feet to loft Ashwin down the ground. Labuschagne was also important in this period; his efforts in the early stages of day two gave Smith the impetus to work his way in and renew his aggression. Labuschagne fell cruelly short of triple figures in both innings, leaving Smith to awkwardly shuffle and flick his way to a century desperately needed by the Australian side. Needing to respond, it was these three figures who stood up for the home team and pushed for a slightly better batting effort.
Pat Cummins loves hard work
Despite looking promising, Australia’s innings collapsed in the back end to just surpass 300. With over 100 more runs to bowl to then they had experienced all series, Australia’s bowlers persevered through some tricky times to restrict India well.
Mitchell Starc looks out of touch. With the new ball he offers wickets and chances, but without this potential he is inconsistent and able to be hit out of the attack. In both innings of the Sydney test this occurred – within two to three overs he was taken off for the dour Cummins. Fortunately, the number one bowler in test cricket was on song. In the first innings he was untouchable – wheeling away on a 20-cent piece for just over 20 overs to rack up figures of 4/29.
Cummins did so with two helpers. First of all was Josh Hazlewood, who worked with his fellow paceman to account for the lack of form shown by Starc and Nathan Lyon (who didn’t snare a wicket in this test until the final day). Secondly was the Indian batsmen, who were spooked by hostile fast bowling and surrendered three wickets courtesy of run-outs. This wasn’t entirely India’s fault – Australia’s fielding hit a golden patch on the third afternoon as Hazlewood, Labuschagne and Cummins all produced outstanding fielding efforts to snare vital wickets (particularly Hazlewood). From a challenging position of 4-194, India were all out for 244 in a swift fall that left them trailing.
Injuries and controversy ruin good cricket
Falling into the middle stages of the test match, the focus soon turned to areas outside of the bat vs ball contest. On two separate days there were complaints from the Indian players of racist abuse filtering out from the barely filled SCG stands. One occurred on the latter stages of the third Jane McGrath day, while the next incident occurred the next afternoon. While there has been no conclusive proof that the people reprimanded did indeed racially taunt Mohammad Siraj and his teammates, it doesn’t make it any less tolerable.
Particularly for Siraj, who is travelling Australia without having seen his family since his father’s untimely death late last year, it’s horrific and gut-churning to see him so upset from behaviour outside of the playing field. Whether it was racist or not, it’s not fair. The Indian team have made an incredible effort to come to Australian shores despite what is occurring globally and with their own quarantine restrictions, so they deserve nothing but praise for attending and producing such an enthralling series. It’s an ugly look for Australian cricket, and makes us feel uncomfortable and embarrassed – feelings which pale in comparison to how Siraj and his teammates must be feeling.
India weren’t helped by more injuries to compound this adversity. Both Ravindra Jadeja and Rishabh Pant were peppered by fast bowling that struck them on the thumb (Jadeja) or forearm (Pant). With Hanuma Vihari (hamstring) also picking up an injury on the final day, India are on their last legs as they fly up to Brisbane.
A defiant stand – perhaps India’s toughest?
It takes guts to bat for long hours of time against hostile bowling to secure a draw. With the odds stacked utterly against them, India wouldn’t have been blamed for capitulating on a day five SCG deck after what they had endured the previous afternoons. But in a riveting display of character, the likes of Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Vihari, Pant and Ashwin all held on for an incredible draw.
The best innings belonged to Pant, who returned to the field clearly hampered by an injury to strike the ball beautifully. Every time drinks were ran out onto the field Pant couldn’t hold a bottle, but when Lyon and co bowled his aggressive counter-attack threw the game into disarray. With Pant and Pujara at the crease, India suddenly had a faint glimmer of a record-shattering win. But Pant’s whirlwind of an innings came to a close on 97, cutting short what would have been a mesmerising ton.
When Pujara’s sturdy defence got damaged by Hazlewood, India once again found themselves staring at a 2-1 deficit heading into Australia’s Gabba fortress. Backed by some sloppy keeping and leadership by Paine, Ashwin and Vihari batted out the last evening to secure a momentous draw.
It may be soon forgotten by cricket lovers due to the end result, but it is yet another example on this tour of how gritty and wonderful this Indian side is. They have had everything possible thrown against them, yet head into the final test with a chance of winning yet another series down under. If they manage to do so, it’ll undoubtedly be their greatest ever series win in Indian cricket history, and this SCG test may become a key pillar to their success.
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