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Match Analysis

Pat Cummins' burst gives way to sobering lesson for Australia

Rahane and company could ride out the tough period with greater assurance in the face of a sub-par total

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
For eight pre-lunch overs on the second day, Pat Cummins bowled possibly just about as well as anyone in 143 years of Test cricket ever has.
Fast, unimpeachably accurate and on a length that left India's top order unsure whether to venture forward or sit back, he plucked the wickets of Shubman Gill and Cheteshwar Pujara to earn the ovation of the MCG and the deep gratitude of his team.
The spell's analysis reads 8-5-12-2 but even that did scant justice to the exhibition of skill, grit and no little persistence: after having a caught behind appeal and review denied from his first ball and then seeing the captain Tim Paine spill an inside edge off the bowling of Josh Hazlewood, Cummins knew he had to raise his already lofty game.
When he bounced and nipped a delivery just enough from the line of off stump to claim Pujara's outside edge in identical fashion to the crazy second innings of the Adelaide Test, the din from the MCG was far louder than any crowd of 23,841 has a right to deliver.
From here, by rights, Australia might have expected to clamber all over India who, after all, were without Virat Kohli and coming off a previous innings of 36. The brilliant, all-New South Wales bowling attack of Cummins, Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon now well established as Australian cricket's "big four" was undoubtedly confident it could finish things off from 3 for 64.
Instead, what transpired over the remainder of day two was a rather sobering reminder for Cummins, Paine and Australia's coach Justin Langer that their present sequence of consecutive first innings of less than 200 runs was always likely to get punished somewhere along the line.
India's riposte, begun when Hanuma Vihari punched Cummins back down the ground for three runs second ball, was not quite as memorable as the aforementioned spell, but it was something more vital in Test matches: consistent, methodical and based on partnerships around a single, spinal innings from the unflappable Ajinkya Rahane.
Langer, one sensed, was aware his men had left the door wide open. At the lunch break, while still ahead by 105 runs, Langer lamented Australia's' lack of substantial batting partnerships in the series so far - just two worth 50 or more in three innings.
"A bit like the first Test, just our partnerships," Langer said when asked by Ricky Ponting about what he had been disappointed by. "We're not going to set up games as well as we could - if you look at our partnerships in the first Test match in the first innings and then yesterday, we have to get a lot better at that.
"We had one 50-partnership in the first Test and we had an 86-run partnership yesterday, and you've also, when you have an 86-run partnership, you've got to turn that into 150, because you're set and to set up the game. So we weren't able to do that and to me, partnerships as much as anything."
As if to give Langer examples to write on his whiteboard in the team room, India's partnerships ticked over accordingly: 61 between Gill and Pujara, 52 between Rahane and Vihari, 57 between Rahane and the effervescent Rishabh Pant, and then a damaging and as yet unbeaten 104 between Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja, either side of a rain break and also the second new ball. So well did they build that, under cloudy skies after tea, India rejoiced in the first wicket-free session of the series.
Each union warded off some "tough periods" when one or both ends were taken up with quality spells. But each also received opportunities to score from an Australian attack that, having had absolutely everything fall their way on the third afternoon in Adelaide, now experienced greater adversity. Five catches went down; several edges fell short; another flew at eminently catchable height straight to a first slip position left vacant by Paine. That was in itself an odd decision, given how much life the pitch has offered relative to other MCG surfaces of recent, drop-in vintage.
Furthermore, only Cummins could claim to have been right at his peak. Starc was arguably next best, still able to get the ball swinging back into the right-handers when it was 70 or so overs old, but Hazlewood seemed unusually quick to frustration when neat little outside edges could not be found as often as last week. Lyon's lines appeared unduly straight, perhaps under the influence of Ashwin but also in uncanny mirror to the way he bowled here to India in 2018. Separated by two years, Lyon's analyses shared only one wicket apiece.
Undeniably, though, the greatest factors in the eclipse of Australia's attack by Rahane and company were those created by the swift demise of the hosts' top order on Boxing Day. The mere fact that Australia, possessing such an enviable record on home soil over the past 30 years, had not surrendered consecutive first innings for fewer than 200 runs since the dark days of late 1984, spoke volumes for the predicament they had placed themselves in.
It followed logically, if painfully, that having pulled a Test match out of a rapidly heating fire in Adelaide, Cummins did his best to repeat the trick at the MCG, only to find that already singed hands could not quite cling on.
"That last ball pretty much summed up our day," Starc said in reference to Travis Head putting down a chance off Rahane seconds before the rain returned. "Not our best day, not our worst, created a fair few chances but couldn't hang onto them. Going to have to back up tomorrow and take five wickets as quickly as you can. We found once the ball got softer, the wicket's pretty placid and there's not too many demons anymore."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig