The Perth pitch that promised fire and fury has turned erratic and ornery, and in the process rendered batting something of a lottery which means the outcome of the second Domain Test remains as utterly unpredictable as the ball’s bounce.
Australia ended day three 4-132, ascendant by 175 runs, which already looms as a sizeable target given the difficulties that batters – other than India’s irrepressible skipper Virat Kohli – have found beyond challenging.
In addition to the four wickets lost to India’s bowlers inside 41 overs, an event granted even greater dramatic effect by dint of the thunder claps that routinely rumbled off the coast, Australia were robbed of opener Aaron Finch who retired hurt on the stroke of tea.
Finch was hit flush on the right index finger by Mohammed Shami and was in obvious pain when attended by the Australia team physiotherapist, then left the ground to undergo x-rays on his damaged digit.
Justin Langer confirmed after play that Finch's finger was not fractured, and the Australia coach remained hopeful he would be able to bat again in this innings.
Nevertheless, his ability to participate in the third Test that begins at the MCG on Boxing Day remains unclear. If forced out it might be one of several changes Australia’s selectors will mull following another top-order fold, among which Usman Khawaja’s gutsy, unbeaten 41 shone like a beacon in the gathering gloom.
Although the failure of others in the top six to pass 25 can came with the caveat of the most extreme circumstances.
Under regular Test match conditions, the 43-run advantage that Australia had carried into the second phase of the game would be considered nigh-on parity.
But the fast, fissured surface at Perth’s new stadium is further from the mild-mannered Test tracks rolled out in recent years than is the Western Australian capital from other major cities.
If Finch is a physical casualty of the perils presented by balls darting off cracks at angles and speeds no amount of training drills can replicate, then others will surely suffer reputational damage or scrapes to their self-belief.
Peter Handscomb’s much-scrutinised technique that sees him pushing out from a position deep in his crease was always likely to prove problematic when the ball ricochets about at pace.
Handscomb himself seemed resigned to a fleeting stay, and busied himself to score three boundaries in his 13 before he was skewered in front of middle stump and – for the second time in a year – his Test tenure immediately became the subject of social media debate.
That urgency to score before the surface struck also explained Shaun Marsh’s bullish pull shot that yielded only an underneath edge.
And Travis Head’s second ill-advised upper-cut in as many Test innings, that raised questions about the clearly talented youngster’s temperament even if his technique is, for the most part, sound.
So fraught has batting become, it is suggested that any target beyond 250 would be almost unthinkable for India even with the sublime Kohli in their number.
If there was a certainty entering the third day of a compelling series, it was that the early fall of an India wicket upon resumption at 3-172 would expose the tourists’ perceived dearth of batting depth.
It took only four deliveries for that scenario to materialise, when Ajinkya Rahane nicked off without adding to his overnight score of 51 and Tim Paine’s flawless catch gave his team a similarly silken start.
And so it was that Kohli assumed the role he had always seemed destined to fill.
With freshly capped Test pair Hanuma Vihari and Rishabh Pant the only batting resistance before India’s tail was exposed, Kohli not only took it upon himself to decrease the deficit (then 153 runs) but instilled his iron will into new batting partner.
The India captain barely flinched when struck near his left elbow by a brutish delivery from Mitchell Starc, betraying a more animated response when an aesthetic spray was applied to his arm than when the initial impact was felt.
It was merely another badge of battle for Kohli, who had copped a hit on his other arm when defying Pat Cummins the previous evening, and taking skin from his hand on the flint-hard pitch while diving for his crease on the second afternoon.
None of these flesh wounds impacted upon his exquisite batting ability, as shown when he unfurled his trademark slap-drive through cover – a stroke seemingly borrowed from field hockey’s repertoire of short corners – against Lyon.
The ensuing boundary carried Kohli to 93, though the sharp single he stole from the next ball that might have cost Vihari his wicket had Travis Head’s throw been on-target indicated he was hellbent on dominating the strike as well as the bowling.
His reaction upon reaching his 25th Test century wordlessly told of its personal significance, and its contextual importance.
Kohli punched Cummins through mid-off and as the ball sped to the rope, the triumphant batter jogged a few steps down the pitch before removing his helmet to acknowledge the rousing ovation and then pointing to his bat.
A movement that was accompanied by an extravagant hand-puppet gesture with his right glove in a message as unsubtle as it was unrepentant – my bombastic bat will speak on my behalf, Kohli flagged.
That it was the world’s top-ranked batter’s second-slowest Test ton mattered not a jot.
India remained more than 100 runs adrift of their opponents when Vihari fell for 20, and Kohli clearly would not yield unless circumstances conspired.
Which they did on the cusp of lunch, when he looked to add to his 123 by reaching for a full, wide delivery from Cummins that held its line and flew low from the edge of Kohli’s talking bat to the right of Handscomb at second slip.
Despite Australia’s confidence the catch was cleanly completed, Kohli lingered mid-pitch awaiting the show-reel of inevitably inconclusive video replays although his fate had been effectively sealed when the on-field umpires softly signalled their belief it was out.
So it proved, amid debate as to how much grass had diluted the grasp and Kohli’s impassive response to applause that followed from the ground foreshadowed the demeanour his team would take into their bowling innings.
That switch loomed immediately closer when Shami, the first of India’s four fast-bowling tailenders surrendered his wicket from the first ball he faced.
It was only some typically incandescent stroke-play from keeper Rishabh Pant that brought the first innings’ disparity to less than 50, as India’s quicks succumbed to spin with Lyon securing a five-wicket bag for the 14th time in 82 Test appearances.
However, any thoughts that the off-spinner’s success meant that Perth pitch was now working in favour of the slow men were shelved within moments of Australia’s second innings getting underway.
Marcus Harris, his team’s best-performed player in their first innings when batting was already far from straightforward, was squared-up by a ball from Ishant Sharma that jagged away and grazed the left-hander’s bat.
The resultant edge should likely have been snared by Pant, but his decision not to dive left slip-fielder Cheteshwar Pujara to make a belated lurch to his right that gifted Harris a life.
The opener was left to ponder whether that was a desirable outcome a few overs later when Jasprit Bumrah – bowling from around the wicket – produced the same sort of snorting delivery that Harris had copped from Vihari on Friday, albeit 50kph faster.
Where the former WA boy was able to instinctively into the path of the off-spinner’s unlikely missile, he took the brunt of Bumrah’s fury on the crown of his protective helmet, a thud that sent him to the canvas.
After receiving the standard on-field concussion test – cricket’s equivalent to boxing’s standing count – Harris was deemed fit to continue, only for Finch to have his right paw smashed by another brute that leapt from a length.
That was the point Australia’s batters seemed to realise survival for any period was purely an exercise in chance, and if they were pinned in a shooting gallery they might as well squeeze off a few rounds in return.
Australia XI: Aaron Finch, Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Peter Handscomb, Travis Head, Tim Paine (c), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood.
India XI: KL Rahul, M Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav.
Domain Test Series v India
Dec 14-18: Second Test, Perth Stadium
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, Chris Tremain
India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Prithvi Shaw, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, 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