January 15, 2021

Marnus Labuschagne ton puts Australia in charge as India pay for drops

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WATCH - Marnus Labuschagne strokes his fifth Test ton

Australia 274 for 5 (Labuschagne 108, Wade 45, Natarajan 2-63) vs India

Australia took command of the first day of the final Test through Marnus Labuschagne's fifth Test century. India were forced to contend with perhaps the worst blow in a tour of many blows, the loss of their best bowlers in Jasprit Bumrah and R Ashwin, and did a reasonable job of it through their newcomers at first.

They could not, however, sustain that through the day as Labuschagne's anchor innings of 108 played perfect foil for the positive, pace-setting innings' from Steven Smith, Mathew Wade, Cameron Green, and Tim Paine. From 87 for 3, Australia stretched to 274 for 5 at stumps, and in the meantime, India's medical staff got an addition to their responsibilities: a potential groin injury for Navdeep Saini, who went off to get scans after bowling 7.5 overs.

True to the theme of the entire tour, the day could have gone differently if the fielding had gone differently. Ajinkya Rahane dropped Labuschagne on 37, shortly after India had dismissed Smith. The chance to build pressure on the lower-middle order seemed to have slipped with that, but a half-chance did come India's way not long after. However, that chance, at first slip, was also put down. Labuschagne was two short of a fifty at that point, and went on to add 60 more.

Marnus Labuschagne signals to the dressing room after reaching his half-century © Getty Images

In that time, he witnessed Wade bat in a more restrained manner than he has all series, as they added 113 for the fourth wicket. Wade didn't compromise on the attacking spark he's shown all series, and took a particular liking to driving past mid-off against pace bowling. But an 87-ball 45 ended, yet again, with a harmless lob into the leg side as he looked to pull T Natarajan, who claimed his first Test wicket.

Labuschagne would be the next, out in the exact manner as Wade, a top-edge hanging up for Rishabh Pant behind the stumps as an ostensibly slow pitch showed signs of grip and lift off a length.

None of those signs showed up in the last hour of the day, however, as Green and a counterattacking Paine put on an unbroken 61-run stand, including seven overs against a largely ineffective second new ball. The ball had swung all day, but India's four-pronged pace attack weren't incisive as much as Australia's batsmen were sloppy.

India had come into the Test with two debutants, Natarajan and Washington Sundar. With Bumrah, Ashwin, and Jadeja all missing this game through injury, they found spots in the team alongside Shardul Thakur, to make up a Test bowling attack with a combined experience of four matches.

Mohammed Siraj, who debuted in the Melbourne Test, was the most experienced bowler in the line-up. And the de facto leader got the early wicket, that of Warner for the second time in two Tests with one that jagged away in the corridor to take the edge. Rohit Sharma dived low to his right for a sharp catch.

T Natarajan sent back Matthew Wade and Marnus Labuschagne in quick succession © AFP via Getty Images

Natarajan took the new ball at the other end and immediately showed his wares, curving it away from the two left-handers. But it was Thakur's innocuous floater into Marcus Harris' pads - his first ball in Tests since hobbling off after 10 balls on debut in 2018 - that provided the wicket of the man replacing Will Pucovski. His hard-handed flick wasn't a menace for Sundar at square leg.

India bowled largely outside off stump through the morning session, a move away from their preferred strategy of strangling Australia with straighter lines. It helped their incoming pacers, who are slower on average than the ones they've replaced, create a sustained containment plan. But once Smith tore into Thakur - his first five boundaries all came against Thakur, with commanding drives through the off side - the discipline was harder to keep. Labuschagne, who was watchful for his first 30-odd runs that took nearly 100 balls, also became expansive through the off side as he utilised India's line of attack to establish himself.

Smith and Labuschagne put up 70 for the third wicket and looked good money to settle into one of their trademark epics, but shortly after lunch, Smith became one of Australia's batsmen who will rue the manner of their dismissals on day one. He became Sundar's maiden Test victim when he flicked an overpitched leg-stump ball straight to short midwicket.

Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo