Vodafone Test Series v India
India must defy history as Australia eye series lead
Cummins and Hazlewood remove openers, leaving hosts requiring eight wickets and India needing 309 on final day at the SCG
10 January 2021, 09:30 PM AEST
Having worn pointed criticism for his lengthy but often unproductive innings in India's first innings, Cheteshwar Pujara now looms as his team's best chance of saving the third Test against Australia if he can summon another similarly stubborn knock tomorrow.
On a sun-soaked day in which the sole gloomy pall was the alleged crowd abuse directed at India's players which brought play to an extended halt, Pujara remained unbeaten on nine after the loss of openers Shubman Gill (31) and Rohit Sharma (52) in the final hour.
Pujara – who was criticised by former Australia captain Ricky Ponting among others for failing to score at sufficient pace during his first innings of 50 in more than four-and-a-half hours – will resume with India 2-98 and stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane at the other end on 4no.
Set a target of 406 by Australia whose 6(dec)-312 was underpinned once again by Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne before being iced by rookie allrounder Cameron Green's big-hitting, the visitors need a further 309 runs for a remarkable win, or will have to negotiate almost 100 overs tomorrow to steal a draw.
With another clear summer's day forecast, India's hopes of avoiding a 2-1 deficit in the four-match series rest on some sort of batting miracle given that only once in the past 139 years has a team scored more than 400 batting fourth at the SCG, and that was England during the 1924-25 Ashes campaign.
Even then, despite batting across four days (including Christmas) in the timeless Test, Arthur Gilligan's touring team found themselves on the wrong side of a lost cause and were defeated by 193 runs.
Batting on a wearing SCG pitch exhibiting sharp spin and variable bounce represents a tough assignment, even though India enjoyed their best opening stand of the series before Gill edged behind and Rohit holed out to deep fine leg on the cusp of stumps.
Their prognosis might not seem quite so forlorn as England's almost a century ago, but their most forgettable day of a challenging campaign had begun with the sting of a squandered opportunity and ended amid the sour-taste of an off-field controversy and an injury-ravaged playing squad.
From the second ball of the fourth morning – with Australia already holding a 197-run advantage with eight second-innings wickets available – India's Hanuma Vihari grassed a straightforward chance from the bat of Labuschagne (on 47) and not much went right from that moment.
Having taken the field with spin bowling allrounder Ravindra Jadeja in the dressing room nursing a dislocated and fractured left thumb, and with keeper Rishabh Pant (elbow) subbed out for replacement gloveman Wriddhiman Saha, the tourists hardly needed another morale dent.
But Jasprit Bumrah, the tireless bowler who created the early chance only to see it missed, summed up his team's frustration as he slapped both hands over his eyes in disbelief as Labuschagne was left to continue his innings.
Every time India looked to stem Australia's dominance, such as removing Labuschagne (73) and Matthew Wade (4) in quick succession, another hurdle was hit and more air leaked from their deflating tyres.
Initially the obstacle was Smith, who emulated the harshly reviewed knock of India's stonewall Pujara the previous day by posting a dogged half-century before squeezing the accelerator as Australia eyed a tea-time declaration.
When Smith departed within 19 runs of his second century of the match, the cudgels were taken up by allrounder Green who posted the highest score (84) of his three-Test career to date.
The 21-year-old had gone to the wicket facing a Test match pair having posted a 21-ball duck in the first innings, but despite his pre-play admission that he suffers from nerves prior to batting in any match, he played the innings of his life thus far that carried him to the cusp of a maiden Test hundred.
After notching his maiden 50 courtesy of a thick-edge that flew wide of gully to the boundary, Green launched into the second new-ball and clubbed four sixes, each one bigger and more brazen than the last.
The initial trio were variations on a theme – hefty heaves over long-on from the bowling of Mohammed Siraj applied with such force that Green was almost swung off his feet.
It was after Green sent consecutive balls into the seats off Siraj that the young fast bowler, playing just his second Test on what has been a personally traumatic and triumphant tour, reported to his captain Ajinkya Rahane he had been verbally abused by members of the crowd seated in front of the Brewongle and Churchill Stands.
The game was halted for almost 10 minutes as the India team, joined by Australia skipper Tim Paine, formed a huddle and umpires Paul Reiffel and Paul Wilson liaised with police in the crowd to identify the sources of the tirades.
When play resumed, Green turned his focus to India's pace spearhead Bumrah who he slapped down the ground for four and then launched over the trouble-makers' seats for six before being adjudged caught behind trying to swing himself into the 90s and Australia declared 406 runs ahead.
The allrounder benefited from being partnered by Australia's past and present Test captain as he came to grips with an SCG pitch increasingly showing variable bounce and an India attack that refused to release the pressure despite its personnel problems.
Current captain Paine should have been dismissed for seven, but Rohit turfed a low chance to his left at wide-slip off the luckless Bumrah and celebrated his fortune by belting four boundaries from the next six balls he faced to further crush India's spirit.
That was despite their bowler's disciplined plans against ex-skipper Smith continuing to have an impact, as was shown in the disparity of his 100-run partnership with Labuschagne.
When Labuschagne posted the benchmark with a reverse sweep to the backward point boundary off Ravichandran Ashwin, the apprentice reached 72 from 116 balls faced whereas the master (Smith) had faced just one fewer delivery for half as many runs.
As has been the case several times this series, Labuschagne seemed destined to post the big score that came so regularly last summer only to lose his wicket in most innocuous circumstances.
This time it was a deflection from his gloves as he tried to tuck a short ball from debutant Navdeep Saini to fine leg with this chance being smartly snared by Saha tumbling to his left, one of four catches he claimed in the innings although (as a substitute fielder) none will show on his career stats.
Suggestions that batting on the scarred and scarified SCG pitch would become increasingly fraught over the final days were put into question by Green's impressive ball-striking and the comparative lack of angst visible as India's openers forged a 71-run first-wicket stand.
And despite battling through today's first session to post 29 runs – doubling his score in the process – from 92 balls faced, Smith proved immediately after the break his containment had more to do with India's bowling acumen than the playing surface.
Returning from lunch with his team 276 runs ahead, Smith pulled the second ball he received (from Siraj) for six and neatly glanced the next delivery to the fine leg boundary to flag Australia's approach to the session.
But on 81, he stretched forward to smother Ashwin's spin and although he was given not out after it fizzed past his inside-edge and into his front pad, India's canny review showed the ball would have hit leg stump.
Smith seemed disbelieving of technology's verdict, perhaps mindful of the mystery trajectory revealed on ball-tracking a day earlier when he survived an lbw shout, but departed having climbed to ninth in Australia's all-time hierarchy of runs scorers.
During today's innings he overtook David Boon (7,422 runs), who was watching the action from his ICC match referee's eyrie, and will enter the fourth Vodafone Series Test eyeing the next on that list – another former skipper, Mark Taylor (7,525).
With 7,449 runs at an average of 62.07, Smith further confirmed his status as one of the Test game's all-time greats.
It's conceivable he will reach 7500 runs in next week's final Test at the Gabba – his 77th – and the next-most prolific batters after that many matches (or fewer) are knights Sir Donald Bradman (6,996 runs at 99.94) and Sir Garfield Sobers (6,913 at 59.19).
And it's one of cricket's few historical givens that those in Smith's shadow are the two greatest Test cricketers of all time.
Vodafone Test Series v India 2020-21
Australia Test squad: Tim Paine (c), Sean Abbott, Pat Cummins, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Moises Henriques, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Will Pucovski, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade, David Warner
India Test squad: Ajinkya Rahane (captain), Rohit Sharma (vice-captain), Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, Cheteshwar Pujara, Hanuma Vihari, Shubman Gill, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Rishabh Pant (wk), Jasprit Bumrah, Navdeep Saini, Kuldeep Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur, Thangarasu Natarajan
First Test: Australia won by eight wickets
Second Test: India won by eight wickets
Third Test: January 7-11, SCG, 10.30am AEDT
Fourth Test: January 15-19, Gabba, 11am AEDT