Steve Smith gave Ravindra Jadeja a thumbs up every time the ball spun viciously to beat his outside edge. It was as much an acknowledgement of a good delivery as a note to self by Smith, whose modus operandi against left-arm spin in the subcontinent entailed making peace with the rippers leaving him every now and then. Greater importance was assigned to not being beaten on the inside edge, but the 107th ball Smith faced eventually went through the gate. Natural variation aiding his cause, Jadeja was too penetrative to be denied, even on comeback trail.
Heading into the series opener at Nagpur, partnerships between Smith and Marnus Labuschagne accounted for 11.55% of Australia’s runs since 2020. This is the highest percentage of runs contributed by any pair who batted together at least five times in Tests in that timeframe. The dependable duo found themselves in the thick of the action once again as the Indian pacers, discounted from the discourse owing to a selectively watered pitch, made their presence felt with lbw shouts and cartwheeling stumps.
The arrival of two right-handers prompted Rohit Sharma to bowl Jadeja and Axar Patel in tandem, but Smith and Labuschagne had their carefully-devised plans in place. Staying side-on and playing late helped neutralize Axar’s arm-ball, with Labuschagne proving an excellent judge of length as he went deep into the crease to create width and steer the ball down third man. Jadeja worked around the angles and mixed up his pace to seed doubt into the batters’ mind, but Smith got over the unplayable gems right away, despite a peach missing the off-stump by a whisker.
Putting the spinners under the pump whenever possible is integral to run-scoring in this part of the world. With the surface behaving normally, by and large, in the morning session Smith and Labuschagne didn’t have to manufacture shots with their innings in its infancy, but when the spinners began extracting purchase more consistently they took an enterprising route. Labuschagne paddle-swept Ashwin for a boundary and Smith advanced to clip Jadeja over mid-wicket before going inside out twice in an over off Axar. Australia were the happier camp going into Lunch, having staged an admirable recovery from 2/2 thanks to a 74-run alliance. India’s thirst for a breakthrough was quenched by Jadeja on the other side of the break, his razor-sharp spell belying the fact that he was playing his first international game in almost six months.
Jadeja ensured he had enough miles under his legs ahead of the comeback fixture. ”I was working hard on my bowling when I was in Bangalore at the NCA. I was bowling 10-12 overs everyday and that helped me a lot. I was working on my rhythm because I knew that I have to play Test cricket and I have to bowl long spells,” he stressed. Jadeja sent down 42 overs versus Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy, picking up a seven-wicket haul. Getting that bowling volume under his belt saw Jadeja operate near his metronomic best against Australia, and the moment there was appreciable assistance from the surface his lethality grew manifold.
Jadeja’s flatter trajectory pushed Labuschagne back before the sucker punch came in the form of a tossed-up tempter. The deception lay in the flight and the subtle change of radar towards the off-stump as Labuschagne, batting on 49, was drawn into a drive. He met air, floored by the turn, and KS Bharat whipped the bails off in a snap. It was a quintessential Jadeja wicket – abiding by accuracy and letting the pitch take care of the rest. 85.6% of his deliveries today were dots – highest amongst all his 5-wicket hauls in Tests. Australia either tried to attack Jadeja (28.8%) or defend him (67.4%) while barely attempting any strike-rotating shots (3.7%).
“Smith and Labuschagne were searching for runs and it wasn’t easy to rotate strike and get runs off each ball. Once you start bowling good areas every delivery, they would also start trying different things and they were busy batters. And once they had a partnership, I thought, I should bowl as many dot balls as possible, consistently. The pitch wasn’t offering turn, so I had to bowl good areas and maintain good line and length,” said Jadeja.
“I used the crease as not every delivery was turning and as I said, the bounce was low. So I was trying to create doubts in the minds of the batters, I was going wide off the crease and coming close to the stumps and some deliveries if they stepped out and it turned, there would always be a chance. Luckily Marnus stepped out, that one turned after pitching. And for Smith, the ball went straight from that same width of the crease,” he noted.
No team has had a fewer percentage of strike-rotating shots against Jadeja in a Test innings than Australia today. Their reluctance to nudge and nurdle can be attributed to the risks involved, given placing the fuller ball into the off-side gaps will necessitate opening the face, an endeavour that may leave a bat-pad gap in its wake. Moreover, closing the willow to tuck a left-arm orthodox around the corner is fraught with danger, especially when the odd ball is breaking.
“It definitely wasn’t easy out there,” felt Peter Handscomb, another victim of Jadeja’s chicanery. ”The Indian team bowled really well as a unit and didn’t give us much to score off. It’s tough because when the pitch is playing tricks, that starts to play with your mind a little bit as well. The ball that doesn’t do as much you expect to do a little bit more and that’s where you can come undone with the ball that goes straight on, rather than the big turners we saw out there as well.”
In his concluding statement, Handscomb is referring to the ball that claimed Smith. Natural variation came to the fore in the last three deliveries of that over, all pitching at roughly the same spot outside off. First one was blocked forward, the next turned to take the edge, so Smith, understandably, covered for the turn only for Jadeja to breach his defences. On a pitch lacking bounce, his knack of keeping the stumps in play all the time yielded handsome dividends, with Matt Renshaw, Handscomb and Todd Murphy caught plumb after the prized scalps of Labuschagne and Smith, who has now been castled thrice by Jadeja in 13 innings – the highest for any bowler in Test cricket.