‘One brings two’ is an oft-repeated cricketing adage. It is said in the context of wickets, when a dismissal is immediately followed by another. Commentators use the axiom presumptively at times, the rationale being that the fall of a wicket tilts the scales of a contest in favour of the bowling side, momentarily so, laying the fertile ground for an instant encore.
Australia’s first innings in Delhi reiterated the legitimacy of this age-old expression. Batters perished in pairs, at the team score of 91, 167 and 168, and 227. The double whammy in the 22nd over of the innings, bowled by R Ashwin, was the most telling. An overspinner beat Marnus Labuschagne on the inside edge and struck him bang in front of middle, while Steve Smith played for the turn only to be hoodwinked by a sidespinner that went on with the arm. Both balls pitched at near-identical spots, and clocked similar speeds of 82 and 85kmph respectively, but the deception had its origins in the seam orientation, with the subtle change proving impossibly hard to pick.
The ball that spun into Labuschagne was delivered with the seam pointing in the traditional manner towards fine leg. However, Ashwin undercut the cherry to bamboozle Smith. The seam was directed towards backward square leg as a consequence of imparting sidespin, and the ball landed on the leather, partially perhaps, to slide on rather than landing on the seam to bite into the surface and grip. Ashwin became the only bowler to claim Smith and Labuschagne in an over in Tests, powering India into the ascendancy even as Usman Khawaja stirred up a lot of dust with his broom.
Him and Alex Carey from the Australian camp have been vastly influenced by the sweeping syndrome. Smith lamented in the aftermath of the defeat in Nagpur that their batting unit wasn’t able to get rid of close-in catchers. He cited the example of Rohit Sharma, who was able to transfer the pressure back onto the bowlers and coerce Pat Cummins into spreading out the field. Sweep and reverse-sweeps are effective tools in that regard, and Khawaja and Carey happen to be fine exponents. The difference in their approach, however, is that while Khawaja employs these shots while trusting his defence, for Carey they are the only means of survival.
Having staved off a probing new-ball burst from Mohammed Siraj, Khawaja was adamant not to be a sitting duck against the spinners. Anticipating a flighted ball from Ashwin upon studying the flatter trajectory of his previous one, Khawaja advanced to pummel a six over mid-off. Then began the procession of sweeps and reverse-sweeps, with Australia taking 36 runs from overs 16-20. The ball was yet to lose its toughness and Ashwin extracting a fair bit of purchase to elicit plays and misses from Khawaja prompted Rohit to add a second slip. He even blocked the loft by stationing a long-off, but the 7-2 field left acres of space on the leg-side and Khawaja needed no second invitations to hammer the slog sweep.
Jadeja was meted out the same treatment. As India introduced spin from both ends, Khawaja bent down low and reverse-tapped the darter on its head to send the ball scorching past point. The flurry of boundaries drew exactly the response that Australia wanted from India. Rohit submitted to having an in-out field on a consistent basis, putting a premium on runs because the slow and low pitch in Feroz Shah Kotla is replete with cracks waiting to open up and India are slated to bat last, having lost another vital toss in this Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
”When you have quality bowlers like Ashwin and Jadeja it is always challenging. The gameplan was always the same, it has been pretty steady from the year and a half, I’m always looking to score runs,” reflected Khawaja, whose venturesome ways stood in contrast to the methodical movements of Peter Handscomb.
Smith, Cummins and Andrew McDonald, all key members of the leadership group, sung from the same hymn sheet when inquiries were made about Australia’s strategy against the accomplished spinners they were going to face on tour. Bravery was a recurring theme among the answers, which laid emphasis on using the feet, sweeping, and going over the top in a bid to upset their rhythm. Handsome did precious little of any of that, his armoury featuring a watertight defence and textbook shots based on sound judgement of length. He allowed the ball to come to him instead of making a play, utilized the depth of the crease when Axar and Jadeja erred in length, and threaded the gaps on the off-side with silken maneuvering of the wrists.
Handscomb’s fifth half-century, coming after a gap of five years and 113 days, was instrumental in Australia reaching 263 from a wafer-thin juncture of 168/6. He had an exemplary control percentage of 89 until the tail asked for help and a streak of adventurism that was absent hitherto came to light. Just like Australia’s fighting spirit.