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Match Analysis

Five (minus one) bowlers keep India alive, their batsmen must keep them kicking

It was a day on which India's luck kept them interested, teased them all along, and then disappeared

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
T Natarajan first picked up the cricket ball less than ten years ago. His unbelievable rise in the IPL lifted his family out of poverty. Towards the end of the latest IPL, his daughter was born, but he picked a net bowler's duty in Australia over going back home to see her. Then an injury to Varun Chakravarthy meant a late call-up into the squad. ODI and T20I debuts followed. Though a limited-overs specialist, he still chose to hang around as a net bowler for the Test matches. Now he is one of only 301 men to have played Test cricket for India.
Natarajan has two wickets on his first day of Test cricket. This is no less than a fairy tale, scenarios of dreams for young boys and girls who don't know the actual route to representing India. It is a great story, but Test cricket doesn't care for great stories. Stories are incidental.
Through an unprecedented combination of the pandemic and a spate of injuries, some of which might be related, India were reduced to playing Natarajan and Washington Sundar in a Test match. They perhaps even had information through their sophisticated tracking devices that an in-game injury couldn't be ruled out. Which is why they picked four quicks to cover both for the conditioning and the inexperience, and went ultra-defensive with their spinner ahead of Kuldeep Yadav to cover a batting base. With Navdeep Saini getting injured during the day's play, the selection stood vindicated.
This is what you do with severely limited units, and yet India are not what you might call "blown away" by an Australia side at home, a team that decided to bat first after winning the toss. In years from now, teams will have reasonably and justifiably bad days in the field even at full strength, but this Indian team seems have to have ruined it for them. You will be giving logical reasons for a 3 for 300 day, but at the same time thinking of the time when an attack with a joint experience of four Tests had Australia at 17 for 2, and were a simple catch away from making it 94 for 4. That on a tour in which they were, by this Test, missing seven first-choice players, one certain replacement, one possible replacement, and were still somehow alive coming into the decider.
With this attack, which was soon reduced to a total experience of three caps, to come out with the scoreboard showing 274 for 5 after losing the toss is a reasonable return. With some luck with the new ball on the second morning, India could still be in the match, but this was a day on which India's luck kept them interested, teased them all along, and then disappeared.
India tried to get the better of their limitations with their field sets. The leg trap was in, and it worked for Sundar, who had a wicket - that of a set Steven Smith - even before he had conceded a run. Shardul Thakur had one with a leg-stump half-volley the first time he bowled in a Test since his first ended with injury after ten balls. Matthew Wade and Marnus Labuschagne got out in ways that suggest no planning or build-up.
The lack of control began to show in the Labuschagne-Wade partnership with regular leg-side half-volleys for Wade without a leg trap in place. Thakur kept trying to bowl full outside off, which is noble, but he did so without protection, suggesting non-adherence to a plan. Siraj, India's first-choice replacement for the three quicks they brought to Australia, continued to show the control that has brought him this far. Saini showed improvement from his first outing before his groin strain took him off. Sundar stuck to his middle-and-leg line, but it was soon apparent it is no good if you can't do the batsmen in the air.
The scoreline was better than expected for such an inexperienced attack, but India could have probably done without the teasing thought of what if Ajinkya Rahane had not dropped Labuschagne with Australia still under 100. That's how Test cricket is, though. You have to be good enough to be at it for hours.
Even when Wade and Labuschagne gave India another look-in, it needed accurate and skilful spells to go through Australia's lower order. That was too much to ask of a bowling unit in which three are not used to long days in the field because of their limited-overs specialisation. It will likely be down to batsmen hanging in for dear life, but it won't be their fault either if they can't: the Australia attack has much better experience, conditioning and skill.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo