India served harsh reminder of chronic pain point

Cricket proves to be wryly funny at times. Having lost his wicket to Mitchell Starc’s booming inswinger at Wankhede, Virat Kohli was adamant not to plant his frontfoot across in Vizag. He opened his stance a bit further, his left shoulder pointing towards mid-on as Starc bustled in from over the wicket. At the completion of the trigger movement, Kohli’s head remained on top of middle and frontfoot adjacent to leg-stump, allowing him to stay inside the line should the ball dart back in, so often the major threat from this angle of delivery.

The minor adjustments worked like a charm, with a couple of well-controlled boundaries testimony to the fact that Kohli emerged triumphant in the opening exchange versus Starc. He’d put in the hard yakka, not only showing signs of personal improvement on a front India struggle as a collective but also offering a ray of hope as the walls caved in on the hosts. At least, life seemed easier for Kohli in the immediate future with Nathan Ellis warming up. He was the new kid on the block, all of three matches old, and nowhere near as potent as Starc, who’d consigned India to their worst PowerPlay since the 2019 World Cup with figures of 4/28 in 5 overs.

Lulled into a false sense of security, perhaps, Kohli tried whipping the first ball he faced from Ellis from the stumps. There was no extravagant curve to beat the flick, but you could sense an element of gay abandon in the way Kohli brought his wrists into action, as if his bread and butter shot yearned for an emphatic release after being employed with careful consideration against Starc. Kohli tamed the brilliance of the master, only to perish to the simpler ways of the rookie.

In fact, Ellis, Cameron Green and Sean Abott were beneficiaries of the mayhem caused by their colleague. India, in a rebuilding phase, couldn’t mete out the punishment that is usually copped by inexperienced bowlers as oppositions single them out to up the scoring rate. Knowing that you’re up against a group of batters disempowered by the situation adds an extra layer of confidence to your own being, and it was evident in the briskness with which the supporting quicks mopped up the tail after the left-arm spearhead rubbed salt into the wounds given to India by his ilk over the years.

The first and second ODI were scheduled just a day apart, so there wasn’t enough time for Starc to cool off his bowling muscles having sent down 9.5 overs at full throttle in the series opener. He was rusty to begin with, but the wicket of Shubman Gill settled him down, his bat flailing away from the body like hang-dried laundry. While a tiny percentage of his balls went on to hit the stumps in the initial three overs, the pitch map exhibited a concentration in the 5 to 7m length between overs 3-6 as Starc shifted his radar to bring all modes of dismissal into play. There were in equal measure balls that held its line to leave the batter and slanters that threatened the pads and sticks, jagging inward appreciably due to the moisture unseasonal showers left in their wake.

The duality of the challenge perplexes the right-hander. Rohit threw his hands at a wide tempter to be nicked off, and it appeared to be a loose shot at first glance. But was he looking to play inside the line in anticipation of the swing? Had he made contact if the ball shaped in a touch instead of going on along its dictated path to take the edge? The inswinger registers in the right-hander’s mind as Starc’s stock ball, hence there’s a good chance muscle memory could force them to account for the movement even when there’s none.

‘’Starc is a quality bowler,’’ Rohit said. ‘’He has been doing it for Australia with the new ball for a while now. He kept bowling to his strength, swung the new ball and took the odd ball away to keep the batters guessing.’’

Suryakumar Yadav employed a markedly open-chested stance a la Kohli to avoid an encore of the golden duck at his home ground. The back-and-across trigger from this pronounced starting point actually left him in a fairly decent position to deal with the incoming ball, but his downswing was defeated nonetheless. Sitting on a pair, Suryakumar is finding the transition from T20s to ODIs anything but smooth.

Waist deep into trouble, India turned to their bankable No.5 to weather the storm, much like he did in Mumbai as Starc produced a glimpse of the havoc he was willing to wreak. There, KL Rahul was asked to negotiate a hat-trick ball first up, which he leant purposefully into to collect an aesthetic boundary. Technically, he looked right at home against Starc during that nerve-jangling chase which he saw through with an unbeaten 75. He opened his account in Vizag with a tidy clip but in what was a rare blemish, his foot went too far across in the penultimate over of Starc’s new-ball spell and the body fell over ungainly in the hopeless pursuit of keeping out the banana swing.

‘’I have learnt the trade over the years,’’ Starc observed. ‘’My rhythm has been good for a few weeks now. Last couple of nights, I got the ball to shape in the air and do a little bit off the wicket. Feeling in a good place, hopefully I can continue. It’s a role I play, being more attacking and bowling slightly fuller than some of the other guys. I can be slightly more expensive, but that brings in all the dismissals more, that’s the role I play. My conversations are a little different compared to someone like Cameron Green. Both the decks have helped the seamers. There was movement in the air in Mumbai as well. My game plan is to attack the stumps and bring in all modes of dismissal into play.’’

Starc definitely walked the talk. His 9th ODI fifer, which took him at par with Brett Lee and Shahid Afridi, took a variegated form – two catch-outs, two lbws, one bowled. His sizzling exploits not only kept India to their fourth-lowest total on home turf but also orchestrated their heaviest defeat in terms of balls remaining. While India may not read too much into the numbers, the umpteenth capitulation in the face of left-arm swing calls for a thorough investigation and prompt redressal.