It was certainly a rational call in terms of recent performances in Asia, as Head averages 21 there. Then again, Usman Khawaja averaged a touch under 20 when he was similarly jettisoned from the team in India in 2017, only to prove his worth in later matches.
Todd Murphy’s debut, meanwhile, gave Australia two off spinners and no-one turning away from the bat, as Steve O’Keefe had done to such great effect in Pune six years before. Bespectacled and thoughtful, Murphy was handed his cap by Nathan Lyon.
So much for the preliminaries. Now to watching the ball.
Having won a precious chance to bat first, Khawaja and David Warner needed to get through a few overs of early morning swing. Neither could do so, giving India a couple of wickets they may not have bargained for. Khawaja’s lbw decision at the hands of Mohammed Siraj was as marginal as they get, but somehow within the ICC’s margin for DRS error.
Next over Warner was bowled by a Mohammed Shami seamer onto which he was crooked and late. In these parts, these days, Warner has very little more to recommend him than Head did.
Then arrived the day’s critical phase. Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne have been setting themselves for this series for weeks if not months. Each have keen eyes and supple wrists, fleetness of foot and sharpness of mind.
If Australia were to make a substantial total most of the runs would have to come from them, and until a few minutes after lunch it looked like it might.
Labuschagne, though, had shown weakness advancing to left-arm spin when Prabath Jayasuriya foiled him in Galle. The unceasingly wily Ravindra Jadeja duly pulled off the same trick, leaving Srikar Bharat to complete a quicksilver stumping and toss the ball in the air the way MS Dhoni once did.
Renshaw, tall and powerful in the vein of the commentating Matthew Hayden, was a touch too ponderous on his first ball, and out to another marginal lbw. Like Khawaja and Warner, he will hope to be sharper next time.
Even then, Smith was still a chance of something major. In Handscomb, he had a partner who knew his way around an Indian pitch, and for a few overs they used dancing feet to worthwhile effect.
But Jadeja’s subtle variations, combined with all the aforementioned distraction, were enough to have Smith playing momentarily and fatally for turn that was not there: shades of Sri Lanka in 2016. Off stump was rattled, and so too Australia.
For a time, Handscomb and Alex Carey prospered with clear plans and a positive outlook. They got the tourists as far as 5-162, a competitive tally of around 250 visible in the hazy distance.
Enter Ravichandran Ashwin, a dominator of left-handers down the years. Carey had been sweeping and reversing with conviction, but he underestimated Ashwin’s drift from around the wicket, and was somewhat unfortunate to drag his paddle onto the stumps.
A familiar decline followed, the Australians losing their final five wickets for 15 runs. Watching the ball is often challenging for tailenders, more so when twirling in the hands of India’s conjurers.
The pitch had offered slow spin, the occasional ball that jumped, and low bounce that meant the stumps were always in play. But it offered enough for batters to get established that four Australians did. For none to go on was both careless and costly.
Taking the new ball, Cummins was as imprecise as Khawaja and Warner had been against Siraj and Shami, allowing Rohit Sharma to flick four leg side boundaries off the stumps after uncertainly edging his first. Defending a small tally, Cummins seemed to be trying for too much.
Lyon and Murphy were soon called up to bowl, and caused few undue initial alarms for Rohit and an erstwhile out of touch KL Rahul, save for the siren that rang whenever a no-ball was hurled down.
In terms of deviation, at least, Lyon and Murphy achieved more than Jadaja and Ashwin, pointing to the pitch’s deterioration. And in the day’s penultimate over, Murphy found real bite and spin from around the wicket to coax a return catch out of a stunned Rahul.
Murphy’s celebration of a deserved first wicket was a slender ray of light for Australia behind an otherwise ugly scoreboard. Not for the first time in India, batting looked much simpler when the hosts did it: it seemed just a matter of watching the ball.
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