Domain Tests v India
Kohli's good fortune underlines India's day
India captain dropped on 47 by Tim Paine as India make most of batting first on flat pitch
Andrew Ramsey at the MCG
26 December 2018, 08:44 PM AEST
It's doubtful that India will see a better opportunity to set up a history-making Test series win in Australia than will dawn at the MCG tomorrow.
Having taken first use of an MCG pitch that remains an unknown quantity while appearing hauntingly familiar, India lost only the wickets of their new opening pair Hanuma Vihari and Mayank Agarwal and resume tomorrow with their two best batters in occupation.
To further buoy their already bullish spirits, that pair – Cheteshwar Pujara (68no) and Virat Kohli (47no) are well set in a partnership that has already brought 92 runs and delivered Kohli a life.
The world's best batter edged a searing, full delivery in Mitchell Starc's penultimate over of the day and the low chance reached Tim Paine's extended right glove on the full, but spilled out as he flung himself to the turf.
At the end of a day that India's batters mostly endured and then, as bowlers wearied in the evening session, began to enjoy, the tourists were 2-215 and eyeing a first innings total from where they can't be defeated, even if forcing a win will be tough.
With the series poised 1-1 and only the Sydney Test in the New Year to play, the series win that has eluded India since 1947 and which Kohli has so publicly coveted is coming sharply into focus.
Certainly, India finished the first day in Melbourne with the upper hand.
For the first two sessions, the Test carried a distinct resemblance to the second match at Perth's new venue earlier in the month, albeit with a demonstrably larger proportion of India fans among the Melbourne crowd that reached 73,516.
In Perth, Australia's openers saw off the new ball and the home team's tally reached 3-145 by tea on the first day, not dissimilar to India's 2-123 at the final break today.
But the crucial point of difference was the final session stand between Pujara – India's best-performed batter of the series to date – and Kohli that remained intact until stumps.
Contrastingly, in the final session of day one in Perth, Australia surrendered three wickets as the pitch quickened along with the scoring rate and the game was played at fast-forward for much of the time after that.
Nobody expects the MCG pitch to suddenly find the pulse that brought Perth to life, even with temperatures around 35C forecast for the next two days.
Instead, broad consensus suggested it will likely become flatter and truer as it's baked and beaten down and the flurry of wickets that characterised a compelling second Test seem about as likely as a cool change.
Although the sight of the second new ball producing better carry late in the day than had the first one at morning's start offered a measure of solace to Australia's foot weary bowlers as they prepare to resume battle tomorrow.
And the delivery from Starc in the shadow of stumps that flew over keeper Paine's head brought nervous smiles from both the bowler and Kohli, who had been dropped from the previous ball.
All of which ensured it was as much the MCG wicket as the action that took place upon it that ended up as Boxing Day's talking point.
A year after the MCG pitch for the bat-dominated Ashes Test draw was rated “poor” by the ICC's senior match referee Ranjan Madugalle, hopes were high that changes made over the ensuing 12 months might yield a livelier surface.
That expectation was effectively quelled in Starc's opening over with the hard, new ball that brought none of the pace and bounce seen from Perth Stadium's drop-in strip a week earlier.
And it was formally snuffed out after just seven overs when Starc's opening partner Josh Hazlewood was spelled and replaced at the crease by Nathan Lyon, whose deployment as first-change bowler revealed everything about the moribund track.
According to those who trawl such trivia, Lyon's appearance inside the first hour was the earliest that day one of an MCG pitch has seen a spinner since the dawn of international cricket 141 years ago.
Not that the lack of life came as a total surprise.
The likelihood of having their bowlers toil on a thankless surface explained why allrounder Mitchell Marsh (who sent down 15 overs, the most he's bowled in a Test innings for more than two years) was added to the starting XI, to help carry the burden shouldered by long-suffering quicks.
Fears that the pitch would only become flatter and less responsive as the forecast heat arrives in coming days had also purportedly prepared skipper Tim Paine to bowl first if the coin landed in his favour this morning.
Which doesn't bode well for India's bowlers, when (or if) their team is bowled out.
Equally unsurprising was that, with neither swing or seam movement a factor, that it was the bowler boasting the greatest 'air speed' who caused the most angst.
Pat Cummins' ability to extract assistance from otherwise unresponsive pitches is well known, yet India's new opening pair were routinely caught short.
In the day's 13th over, Vihari revealed his susceptibility against the short ball, his awkward attempt to duck beneath a delivery that lifted scarcely shoulder high resulting in a blow to the crown of his batting helmet and a prolonged medical check.
In Cummins' next over, Agarwal – an accredited opening bat who had appeared far more comfortable against Cummins' probing 145kph pace – was surprised by a delivery that reared at him and struck him on the left shoulder blade as he attempted to sway from its path.
But these were aberrant events as Australia quickly accepted their best chances of breakthroughs lay in drying up runs and inducing errors.
The first phase of that strategy worked as well as could have been foreseen, with India crawling to 123 from almost 55 overs bowled prior to tea.
The error rate, however, was even lower with only two wickets to show for that toil.
Vihari's maiden stint as a Test opener ended in the fashion that always seemed likely, his unease against Cummins' short-pitched battle plan eventually bringing a parried catch to slip from an act of self-defence.
The spin-bowling allrounder, who had batted No.6 in the previous Test on a far spicier surface, had managed eight runs from the 66 balls he faced and the first-wicket stand of 40 had done more to tire the bowlers than scoreboard operators.
By contrast, Agarwal had been much more industrious if not altogether adventurous.
While the 27-year-old seemed rarely troubled by the three-pronged seam attack (as well as Mitchell Marsh's medium-pacers), he was clearly most at home against Lyon's spin.
Several times he slapped deliveries through extra cover in a manner previously patented by Kohli and – having posted his inaugural Test half-century – imperiously lifted the Australia spinner beyond the boundary rope at wide long-on.
Within sight of a deserved century – a milestone that's not been reached by an India Test opener since boy genius Prithvi Shaw (sidelined with an ankle injury) did it all of 12 weeks ago – Agarwal fell in the cruellest manner.
Again it was a Cummins short ball, that the opener attempted to evade but felt the ball brush his batting glove before it nestled in Paine's gloves.
Agarwal's dismissal brought with it the tea adjournment, at which point India were 2-123 and Australia understood that separating the tourists' top two batters might mean the opening day could still be salvaged.
By the drawing of stumps, that hope was rendered as distant as had been dreams of a Perth-like pitch.
Australia XI: Aaron Finch, Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Travis Head, Mitchell Marsh, Tim Paine (c), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
India XI: Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah
Domain Test Series v India
Dec 6-10: India won by 31 runs
Dec 14-18: Australia won by 146 runs
Dec 26-30: Third Test, MCG
Jan 3-7: Fourth Test, SCG
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c, wk), Josh Hazlewood (vc), Mitch Marsh (vc), Pat Cummins, Aaron Finch, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Archie Schiller
India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hardik Pandya, Hanuma Vihari, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar