Attrition in Ahmedabad: Shami and Khawaja headline old-school day of Test cricket

The day started in extraordinary fashion, before the teams fought hard on the best batting pitch of the series

India prime minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese raise their hands with Rohit Sharma and Steven Smith, India vs Australia, 4th Test, Ahmedabad, 1st day, March 9, 2023

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese with the two captains before the start of play in Ahmedabad  •  Associated Press

On December 8, 1959, Ayub Khan and Dwight D Eisenhower, the presidents of Pakistan and the USA, attended the fourth day of a Test match in Karachi. Striving to save the Test against Australia, Pakistan scored 104 for 5 over that five-and-a-half-hour day. Only once have fewer runs been scored over a full day's play in Test cricket.
Sixty-three years and three months later, Narendra Modi and Anthony Albanese, the prime ministers of India and Australia, were in attendance on day one of another Test match, at a stadium named after one of them. Runs came quicker in Ahmedabad than they did in Karachi, but there was a similar attrition to proceedings, and it felt especially so coming after the frenetic contests in Nagpur, Delhi and Indore.
You could almost call it a day of normalcy after the frenzied action of those three Tests, but there was nothing normal about it in other respects. The players didn't warm up on the field of play. Before the toss, the prime ministers went on a lap of honour around the outfield, on a buggy decked out with stumps and bats, to the accompaniment of patriotic Bollywood tunes composed by AR Rahman and Salim-Sulaiman.
Tickets for days two, three, four and five of this match had gone on sale days before tickets for day one, as the organisers sought to balance the presence of the paying public and special invitees. There was talk before the match of record attendances, but the world's highest-capacity cricket stadium was perhaps only 60% full through the first hour of play, which the prime ministers sat through. A curious thing happened once they left; the lower tiers, initially packed with men and women wearing badges around their necks with the word "volunteer" on them, began to clear out, while the upper tiers began filling up.
All this was unusual, but the cricket was relentlessly old-school.
It was the kind of day on which your attention could wander, but whenever you turned your eye back to the action, whether it was at 10am or 4pm, you were likely to find Usman Khawaja defending off the back foot, with his front pad pulled smartly away from the line of the ball.
Khawaja's timeless, unhurried grace was the one constant on a day of subtle shifts in mood and tempo. The new ball swung around corners, but India's quicks took time to find their lines, and Travis Head, slashing at everything, rode his luck while scoring 32 off 44 balls. He played and missed constantly, survived a dropped chance, and achieved a control percentage of 77 on the flattest pitch of the series, but India could do little against him but wait for the next mistake. Once it came, a miscue to mid-on off R Ashwin, the bowlers got into their groove, and gained control over Australia's run rate.
A simplistic narrative has developed around this generation of India players, that they represent a new-age vision of India fuelled by a brook-no-questions aggression, but the cornerstone of their Test results both home and away has been the patience and control of their bowling attack. It was fully on display now, on this flat, first-day pitch. It took India 289 balls to pick up their next two wickets after they'd dismissed Head, but they only conceded 90 runs in that time.
The pitch was slow and low with barely any turn on offer, and India met its challenge with time-tested methods. They tried to keep the stumps in play, and set fields for drives and flicks in the wide V from extra-cover to midwicket, primarily to protect runs against those shots, while also hoping for catches if the batters played too early.
The spinners looked to mix up their pace and angles and turn the batters' muscle memory against them, hoping to get them playing for turn when there was barely any available. Steven Smith kept trying to clip Ashwin to mid-on, and kept playing the ball back to the bowler off the outside half of his bat. Ashwin's hands kept going towards his head, but while he was troubling Smith with his drift and lack of turn, he wasn't necessarily going to get him out with just those tools.
India waited for mistakes, and kept the runs down while they waited. Marnus Labuschagne and Smith both looked good without managing to wriggle out of India's stranglehold, and both were out in classic slow-pitch fashion, playing on with their bats drawn a mite too far from their bodies.
So far, so attritional. It took until the 71st over of the day for an India bowler to do something spectacular at the Narendra Modi Stadium. Mohammed Shami produced that moment, as he somehow often seems to on seemingly lifeless pitches. He did it during a spell of reverse-swing, but he did it with a hint of seam movement, and in a manner that seemed almost inevitable.
When he last came to India, Peter Handscomb had the reputation of being an lbw candidate; he'd stand deep in his crease, go back and across in his trigger movement, and often end up on the back foot against full deliveries with his pads in line with the stumps. On this trip, he's changed his set-up slightly, at least when the ball has reversed. He still stands with both feet inside the crease, but he doesn't go across his stumps quite so much, and stays leg-side of the ball.
Watching this, you may have felt that a skiddy ball straightening to hit the top of off stump could get him in trouble. Umesh Yadav tried to bowl this for a while, before Shami took over. There's probably no one in the world better at bowling that particular delivery, and Shami took exactly one ball to land it perfectly to Handscomb. Outside edge beaten, off stump cartwheeling, thank you very much.
For India in home Tests, this sort of moment has often opened the floodgates after hours and sessions of patient probing. For a while, Shami continued to threaten. Cameron Green shouldered arms to a ball he could have left on length in Perth or Brisbane, and was lucky to come away with his off stump intact.
Shami then peppered Green with the short ball. As a towering man with a crouched stance, low hands, and a recently fractured finger, Green may well have expected to face this line of attack, particularly on this low-bounce pitch against skiddy fast bowling. He knew, however, that the bigger threat was the full ball at his stumps, and he was prepared to use methods to repel that mode of attack even if it left him looking awkward when it was up near his ribcage.
Green got through the barrage, and India took the second new ball, an over after it became available. They may have hoped it would swing, while also giving their spinners a bit more purchase late in the day. It didn't quite work that way, and from 201 for 4 in 81 overs, Australia sped to 255 for 4 in 90 with Khawaja bringing up his century, to pockets of warm applause, in the last over of the day.
Australia had perhaps enjoyed the better of the day's exchanges, but India had kept their scoring down for large periods. They will have had an anxious eye on the pitch throughout; it remains to be seen how long it will hold together under the harsh Ahmedabad sun.
The turning pitches laid out for the first three Tests of this series were partly an effort to minimise the impact of the toss. Now, with a series win and a place in the World Test Championship final on the line, India had prepared - by design or otherwise - the flattest surface of the series. These pitches tend to stay flat through both teams' first innings when India play Test matches in October and November; in the heat of March, there's a chance they can start off flat and deteriorate rapidly.
The course of the Test match may well hinge on how long it takes for this pitch to offer serious turn. Both teams can expect plenty more old-fashioned attrition until then, under the watchful eyes of a thousand larger-than-life likenesses of their respective prime ministers. They've left the stadium, but they're still watching.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo