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AUSTRALIA V INDIA TESTS

Smith gets surprise Indian welcome gift

17 February 2017

Smith at the toss before Pandya's surprise decision // cricket.com.au

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Australia's batsmen take advantage of India A's surprise decision to bowl first on sweltering day in Mumbai

About the Writer:
 @ARamseyCricket

Andrew Ramsey is the senior writer for cricket.com.au. He previously wrote for the Guardian, The Australian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Hindu and Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and the author of The Wrong Line.

Whispered conspiracy theories about the preparatory opportunities afforded Australia’s Test team in India were laid gently aside just moments after the coin landed on the lush wicket block at Brabourne Stadium this morning.

Report & Highlights: Marsh, Smith post centuries in tour match

Steve Smith, who lost all three tosses on his team’s 0-3 drubbing at the hands of Sri Lanka last year, immediately foresaw a long, hot day under the Mumbai sun when he called tails and it came up heads.

A day of toil without the use of his front-line strike bowlers Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, who are being rested from this three-day tour game.

So surprised was Smith when his rival skipper - India A captain Hardik Pandya, who is also a member of the host’s 16-man squad for the opening Test in Pune next week - revealed he wanted to bowl first that the Australia captain was forced into an involuntary double-take.

Highlights: Australia v India A, Day One

"Sorry," Smith said, leaning past match referee Shakti Singh, the former first-class allrounder turned Bollywood crooner. "Did you say you’re bowling?"

In less combative times, certainly back when the genteel Cricket Club of India hosted Test teams at Brabourne including Australia outfits led by Lindwall, Benaud, Simpson and Lawry, that was the polite convention.

The coin toss was merely symbolic, with the touring team always afforded the right to bat first and acclimatise themselves to the local conditions.

While enjoying the hospitality, if not so much the warmth.

But in the era of opportunism, such courtesies have gone the way of other quaint traditions such as applauding the opposition captain to the crease and taking a fielder’s word for a low-to-ground catch.

Stories abound of contemporary touring teams arriving at destinations famous for spin bowling only to find warm-up venues sporting green tracks thought endemic to northern England, and an opposing XI bereft of spin bowlers.

Or on fast bowler-friendly shores to be greeted by rank turners and a line-up of medium-fast trundlers.

Perhaps Pandya, touted in some quarters as the potential answer to the seam-bowling allrounder role that India has found tough to fill since Kapil Dev took retirement, was one of those duped by the outward appearance of the Brabourne pitch.

Smith's hat game was strong on day one in Mumbai // cricket.com.au
Smith's hat game was strong on day one in Mumbai // cricket.com.au

Sporting a healthy shade of green in keeping with the surrounding emerald-tinged wicket block, and exuding the hint of moisture that would encourage captains to field first in places where the ball swings wildly through the air and decks about off the seam.

But even though Pandya hails from the neighbouring state of Gujarat, he would have been one of those who know the vagaries of Mumbai’s historic former Test venue and duly recognised the strip as a typical Brabourne pitch.

That is, green in appearance but offering just a whiff of assistance to the seamers in the opening hour before flattening out into a true if slowish, batting surface on which bowlers of all genres were likely to struggle.

So if Pandya’s decision to unleash his bowling attack built around seam wasn’t chivalrous, it certainly sailed close to adventurous.

Had the huge, first-over lbw shout against opener Matthew Renshaw, from the first ball he faced on this two-month tour, had been upheld then the call would have looked like genius with Australia immediately 1-1.

Marsh reflects on great day for Australia in Mumbai

But by stumps, when the tourists reflected on a day that yielded valuable centuries to Smith (107 retired) and Test aspirant Shaun Marsh (104 retired) and a total of 5-327, it’s difficult to imagine the visitors could have been gifted a better start.

Even the top-order batters who didn’t post a score of substance got to enjoy some time in the middle.

David Warner with a typically breezy 25 from 30 balls that featured a series of sweetly-timed punches through the infield, before his success on the pull shot against balls that sat up on the sluggish surface led him to try and drag one from outside off stump.

Only to see it balloon to the keeper instead.

His opening partner Renshaw survived another slightly less vociferous lbw shot half an hour after the first, and was beaten hands down on several occasions by Pandya who – like the South Africa bowlers in Renshaw’s recent Test debut – couldn’t fathom how he could come so close to the edge but never quite find it.

Renshaw found the going touch against India A's seamers // cricket.com.au
Renshaw found the going touch against India A's seamers // cricket.com.au

The big left-hander batted almost 90 minutes for his 11, and never looked entirely comfortable to observers although consensus suggests that is just the way he plays.

When India A’s best bowler Navdeep Saini switched his line of attack to around the wicket, he immediately had Renshaw squared up and edging behind, which will doubtless prick the attention of India’s Test strategists.

In the case of Peter Handscomb (45 from 70 deliveries), it was the arrival of the second new ball that led him to nick into the cordon.

Although the placement of several 'wandering' catchers in various disparate locations behind the bat to swoop on Handscomb’s favoured 'glide' through the slips also carried the hallmarks of a clearly-drawn plan.

But evidence of shortcomings in the techniques of Smith and Marsh, who put together a third-wicket stand of 156 before Smith declined to return to the fray after tea, will likely prove harder to unearth.

The skipper gave a half-chance on 55 when he advanced at Nadeem and edged a low catch to first slip that might or might not have carried, and wasn’t taken cleanly on any account.

While Marsh’s only blemishes came against balls that seemed to stop and prop in the surface and, through his strong reliance on his powerful bottom hand, saw him mistime a couple of shots that flew dangerously close to fielders.

But that same absence of zip from the pitch allowed the pair ample time to wait for loose balls, direct them into the gaps and cash in on Brabourne’s immaculately clipped outfield.

Many times Smith stood tall before tugging short deliveries through the leg side, and Marsh was similarly selective as the ‘tennis ball’ type bounce might have brought back memories of full court matches with his younger brother Mitchell in the family’s Perth backyard.

The one certainty from a day that generated a few points to ponder – whether Shaun Marsh has effectively snared Usman Khawaja’s top-order batting berth prime among them – is that the spin threat Australia will face in the Tests will be unrecognisable from that encountered today.

Smith and Marsh starred for Australia in Mumbai // cricket.com.au
Smith and Marsh starred for Australia in Mumbai // cricket.com.au

Shahbaz Nadeem’s left-arm orthodox was accurate but rarely threatened, and the pace of whatever turn he was able to generate bore no resemblance to what fellow leftie Ravindra Jadeja will bring to the Tests in Pune, Bengaluru, Ranchi and Dharamsala.

And as an off-spinner, Mumbai local Akhil Herwadkar makes a handy opening batsman, which – in fairness – is his primary skill as a cricketer.

Ravi Ashwin he quite assuredly ain’t.

And the pair’s end-of-day return of 0-138 from 34 overs – supplemented by a few wicketless overs from very part-time leggie Shreyas Iyer but none from far more accomplished off-spinner K Gowtham, who reportedly hurt his hamstring in the first session – duly reflected the influence spin wielded on a day dominated by the bats.

Which could quite easily have been those of the strong India A line-up, which includes Priyank Pandchal, who posted an unbeaten 314 in India’s domestic Ranji Trophy competition late last year, adding further intrigue to Pandya’s decision to bowl first.

As an innately superstitious breed, cricketers tend to look for portents and trends where pure mathematics will instead tell them that each match, each innings, each ball represents a uniquely exclusive event.

But as they enter day two of this fixture on Saturday, Smith’s Australians might mull over some history at a venue that is most notable for precisely that.

The most recent occasion that Australia began a Test tour of India with a warm-up game at Brabourne was in 2004 – at the outset of the only campaign in almost 50 years that has netted the great cricket nation a Test series win here.

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