Indian bowling under fire

Let down by its wayward pace attack, India just about manages to scramble to a draw. By S. Dinakar.

Eventually, India scraped through with a draw at the Sydney Cricket Ground, on a surface that resembled a track from the sub-continent. This was a series where India should have done much better given the conditions.

In Sydney, India was primarily let down by its wayward pace attack in the first innings. In the second, when the pitch was conducive to spin, Ravichandran Ashwin suffered from a lack of support at the other end. India should have played a second spinner on this track. The extra batsman it fielded in the match, Suresh Raina, failed to open his account in both the innings.

Australia regained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with a 2-0 victory in the four-match series.

It is not easy for a team to come back in a Test once it concedes 572 in the first innings. After Steven Smith won a good toss, Australia assumed control of the match, as its top six batsmen scored a half-century or more. It is for the first time that Australia has achieved such a feat in Tests.

Two of Australia’s batsmen, the aggressive David Warner and the regal Smith, notched up hundreds. While Chris Rogers made 95, Shane Watson’s 81 helped him release some of the stress he was under. The Aussies pummelled the Indian bowling.

The lack of control in the Indian pace attack was disturbing. This was more pronounced in the absence of Ishant Sharma, who was rested because of a sore knee. Umesh Yadav was erratic and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, not appearing fully fit, bowled at a friendly pace and hardly swung the ball. Mohammed Shami, despite his odd, good, wicket-taking deliveries, could not regularly bowl in the right areas.

On the crucial first day, India’s field placements were bizarre too. It was hard to comprehend a leg-slip in the first session when the bowlers had to bowl in the corridor, on or outside off stump. The leg-slip almost invited them to bowl a wrong line.

Then, on the fourth day, India shockingly conceded 213 runs in the session after tea. The pace bowling was club level, and India lost the opportunity to build pressure after Ashwin, bowling with the new ball, had made early breakthroughs. Bowling has to work in tandem, something that India failed to achieve in the series.

Joe Burns tore into the bowling, and the Indian fielders were left chasing leather or following the flight of the ball as it landed beyond the ropes. India’s misfielding in the deep did not make for a happy viewing either.

India, once again, put down crucial catches in the Test. The team has to work on its catching in the slip cordon.

On India’s bowling in the series, the team’s assistant coach, Bharat Arun, said: “It’s been a mixed bag; we have to be a lot more disciplined than what we are. There have been occasions where we have been disciplined, but I think consistency is going to be the key. We are working on the shortcomings. The fact is we have not been as consistent as we need to be.”

On India not playing a fifth bowler, he said: “You got to look at the overall balance of the team before you decide on the combinations. A lot of thought was given to that before deciding on the side.”

Arun added: “We are a young side; we are in the process of rebuilding and learning. We performed well so far, we have been very competitive. If you notice, the first two matches could have gone either way.”

There was a positive for India in the Test. Opening batsman K. L. Rahul put the nightmare of the MCG — he had got out to atrocious strokes — behind for an elegant century of technique and composure in the first innings. His batting has style. He is sound off the back-foot, and is balanced and relaxed in his stance. Crucially, Rahul does not commit himself.

The Karnataka batsman’s 141-run third-wicket partnership with Virat Kohli was a critical ingredient of the side’s fairly strong reply of 475 in the first innings. Credit must be given to Kohli for backing the youngster to come good and making him bat in his normal opening slot.

Kohli’s 147, his fourth century of the series, reaffirmed his form. Runs are flowing from his blade.

However, both Rahul and Kohli were reprieved, and Australia’s catching and fielding was ordinary in the Test. As Smith conceded, the side needs to lift its fielding standards.

The Australian team is known for its high fielding levels, and the manner in which chances were not taken in the slips and at short-leg (off-spinner Nathan Lyon suffered in the Test) hurt the host. Smith was distracted by one of the wires holding the spidercam in the first innings, as he put down a skier, running back from the slip. In the second innings, he leapt to his right to pouch an astonishing catch off Rohit Sharma in the cordon. Yet Smith’s dropped catches that reprieved Rahul and Kohli in the first innings dented Australia’s chances. Finally, there was some substance in the Indian lower order, with Wriddhiman Saha, Ashwin and Bhuvneshwar offering resistance. Once India cut down the lead to less than 100, Australia was forced to press hard for a win and lost wickets in the process.

Despite Ashwin striking early, Rogers and Smith provided the side the momentum and then Burns cut loose.

Australia set India a challenging target of 349 on the final day. In-form opener M. Vijay held the innings for most part with a fighting 80. He was grassed by the Aussies too.

Despite a useful 46 from Kohli, India collapsed again, and finally, it was left to the determined eighth-wicket pair of Ajinkya Rahane and Bhuvneshwar to save the game for India. Kohli was critical of the side’s attack after the match. “The skill is there. You need composure and character to go out there and say, ‘I’m tired, but I need to take two wickets for my team, so I need to bowl at the same pace as my first spell,’” he said.

“That’s where character counts, when you’re tired and you’re down and your team expects you to step up. That’s something we’ve not been able to do in the last couple of years,” he added.