In spite of India’s head-turning 36/9 in Adelaide, the big narrative heading into the Boxing Day Test at the MCG was about how the visitors were going to negotiate the gargantuan threat that Steve Smith posed. After all, Smith came armed with jaw-dropping numbers in this fixture over the years – 908 runs in seven MCG Boxing Day Tests at an average of 113.50.
Ravichandran Ashwin, however, brought Smith’s dream run at the venue to a screeching halt, as the Aussie batsman fell for a duck in a Test match for the first time since 2016. That anomaly came via smart bowling from the Indian offspinner, who placed a leg slip and lured the former Aussie skipper into hitting it straight to the fielder.
In the aftermath of a rather ordinary batting performance that saw Australia fold for 195, Marnus Labuschagne reckoned India bowled straight lines all day, and cut out any easy scoring avenues on the off-side.
“Something that we’re releasing very quickly is people are coming up with new ways, thinking about the game slightly differently,” Labuschagne said of the leg-slip ploy that got Smith. “Obviously today, they came out with a heavy leg-side field and bowled very straight and didn’t give us any scoring options to the off side.”
While Ashwin started well and continued to make life difficult for the Australian batters, the Indian pacers too didn’t stray from a very solid plan to ping the hosts on the backfoot early on. Debutant Mohammed Siraj too gave a good account of himself, getting the ball to swing and constantly attacking the pads to make run-making really tough.
Labuschagne, who’d go on to become Siraj’s maiden Test scalp, felt it was the sort of day where the batsmen had to dig in for long hours in order to overcome the opposition’s immaculate plans.
“You just know you’re going to have to lock in and bat for long periods of time. They’re bowling really straight lines, you’re not getting many runs through the off side, so this is the art of Test cricket, this is why we all love it. Because it’s a continual challenge for the bowlers to come up with new ideas to stop the batters scoring and build pressure and that’s what they did today.”
Interestingly, and much to India’s delight after Ajinkya Rahane lost the toss, the MCG pitch behaved a lot differently than usual. The last five first-innings scores leading up to today’s fixture were 551/3 decl., 443/9 decl., 327, 443/7 decl. and 467. The expectation was for the drop-in pitch at the venue to flatten out after the first hour and make it a hard day’s work for the Indian bowlers. But, there was a bit of seam movement for the quicks, while Ashwin got it to turn quite sharply very early in the day. Siraj, as Labuschagne noted, also managed to swing the ball as late as the 50th over mark.
“There was a little bit more in it, the ball seamed and you even saw the ball swing at the 50th over mark, which is something you probably don’t see usually here at the MCG at that time,” Labuschagne said.
Rahane held back Siraj for the entirety of the first session, as the moisture in the surface prompted the skipper to bring spin into play early. Ashwin repaid that strategy with three wickets in the morning session, while Siraj waited for his chance.
“He was very eager to bowl in the first session. He was waiting for his chance,” Jasprit Bumrah said of the debutant. “When he came after the first session, there was not a lot happening. So he bowled with a lot of control. Suddenly, he started getting a little bit of movement. He tried to use the best of it.”