Match Analysis

R Ashwin's fortunes mirror India's on frustrating day at the SCG

The first day showed that the batsmen might need to do the heavy lifting if India are to win the SCG Test

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Two Tests in a row, R Ashwin has been introduced into the attack ahead of a third seamer in a country that helps fast bowlers more. Before this series, it had happened outside Asia and the West Indies only twice before in the first innings. Back in 2011-12, it was more a case of a youngster being sent to the gallows in Adelaide, and in 2018 at Edgbaston, India wanted to utilise the early moisture against a left-hand opening pair.
Here in Australia, the story is different. India are fielding an inexperienced bowling attack - both at MCG and SCG, India have had a debutant fast bowler - because of injuries. Ashwin has stepped up as a leader of the attack, and has bowled exceptionally well, and for long hours. How Ashwin has gone has also been indicative of how well India have gone.
In Melbourne, Ashwin came on to bowl in 11th over of the innings, with Australia at 25 for 1. In Sydney, he was held back with till the 14th over - because the rain break allowed the opening fast bowlers a longer first spell - with the score 36 for 1.
At MCG, Ashwin's first spell broke the back of Australia's batting, getting a wicket early, exposing Steven Smith to a newish ball with the scoreboard pressure on and getting him out. At SCG, Ashwin started off just as well as he did in Melbourne, but things took a different route for him and for India pretty soon.
For seven overs, Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah, the two leaders of the attack, the likeliest men to take a wicket, put debutant Will Pucovski and Marnus Labuschagne under pressure. Mohammed Siraj, in only his second Test, then took over well from Bumrah. Only 13 runs came in the ten overs since Ashwin came on to bowl, Labuschagne faced 18 straight dots, and there was anticipation in the India camp.
Ashwin's success this series has relied on shutting down right-hand batsmen by making them play to a heavily populated leg-side field. Which is what he kept doing in his first five overs, mixing it with the drifting delivery that challenges the outside edge. In his fifth over, he tried it once but pitched it too full, allowing Pucovski a cover-drive. Later, in the over, he corrected himself, drifting the ball away while staying short of a driving length, drawing a forward defensive, taking the outside edge… only for Rishabh Pant to drop it.
Now dropped catches are as much a part of Test cricket as chances created are, but when it happens at a specialist position - wicketkeeper and slips, for example - the technique comes under the scanner. Former wicketkeepers immediately talked about Pant's hands pointing at the ball, his fingers almost parallel to the ground and grabbing at the ball as opposed to hands pointing down and letting the ball come to him. ESPNcricinfo's logs revealed that Pant has dropped nine of the 20 catches that have come his way off spin bowling in Test cricket.
Whether Pant should play over Wriddhiman Saha is a debate for another day, but the fact that Australia got away after this drop and another half-chance spilled not long after tells you how much needs to go your way when you have a thin attack. Saha probably would have been playing had India not played Ravindra Jadeja as the fifth bowler and the sixth batsman. They had to provide some batting cover. Jadeja probably would not have been playing had Mohammed Shami not been injured.
In Melbourne, everything went India's way. That is what has to happen if you pull off an away win despite being so outmatched. Here things started to going against India. Ashwin was already into his 91st over of the series, this was a day-one pitch, the flattest of the three, and the margin of error kept diminishing. In the next four overs, Ashwin bowled perhaps more bad balls than he had done all series.
A big part of Ashwin's success has been in not allowing the batsmen to hit him against the spin into the off side. For that to happen, he either has to go too wide or too short. He began erring on the short side. In just one spell, he conceded 24 off-side runs to right-hand batsmen. In the whole Adelaide Test, he gave 28, in Melbourne 51.
This was not the ideal time for debutant Navdeep Saini to be introduced either, and Pucovski laid into him. Fifty runs came in eight overs leading into tea. Steven Smith now got to start out against a 35-over-old ball. He didn't have to face the first spell of any of India's strike bowlers. The pitch was easier too. He got into his work like great batsmen do. Marnus Labuschagne went past 50 after two 40s. Despite more than a session lost to rain, Australia were near their highest score of the series. They batted with a control rate of 92%, well higher than the series rate, which is a comment both on the pitch and the not-surprisingly reduced accuracy of bowling.
While it looked ominous for India, the day only put in perspective the immenseness of the effort their bowlers put in in Melbourne. They might just need the same from their batsmen to get out of this one.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo