It was the start of the most awaited tour on the calendar, and the one thing Virat Kohli struggled with right through the England tour was corrected even before a ball was bowled – he won the toss, and on a really good day for batting, put his men in. But that was possibly the wisest call the India team made all day, as on a treat of a batting pitch they stumbled their way to 250 for 9 at the end of Day 1.
Barring Cheteshwar Pujara, every top order batsman perished playing strokes more suited to another country and another format of the game rather than Test cricket in Australia, which is played the hard way. And Australia played it exactly that way - they came hard at India right from ball one, bowled stingy lines and lengths, barely missed anything in the field and caught fantastically.
But for a late rear-guard from that old-fashioned warhorse Pujara, who compiled an outstanding maiden hundred in Australia off 231 deliveries, and his tidy partnership with Ravichandran Ashwin, the start to India’s much-hyped tour of Australia would have been pretty disastrous, if it is not already.
It all began with KL Rahul going in with hard hands very early. It wasn’t as if the shot was not on for a full-pitched delivery from Josh Hazlewood, but you would expect Rahul to be cautious, especially on the back of the form he is in.
Rahul now seems to be playing an innings too many on potential rather than on performance. But if potential is a concern with Rahul, reputation seems to be the problem with two others in Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane.
Both fell to errors in and outside the off-stump. Vijay played against the line to an in-comer from Mitchell Starc, which he nicked behind to Tim Paine. And Rahane threw his bat at a carrot dangled around the eighth stump by Hazlewood again.
In between these two dismissals, Usman Khawaja pulled out the moment of the first day’s morning session. On the third delivery that Virat Kohli faced off Pat Cummins, he edged uppishly towards gully.
The ball was traveling quickly to the left of Khawaja, who flew to his left and held on with one hand; in that one moment, he had given a perfect advertisement for how the series needs to play out – by giving it your all. Kohli, on his part, played a shot as though he was carrying on from his last Test here, four years ago.
If you saw the first 59 deliveries of Rohit Sharma’s innings, you would have been inclined to think he was finally turning the corner in his Test career. He looked comfortable and attacked with some sublime stroke play, the kind we associate with him in white ball cricket.
A six over extra-cover off Pat Cummins is already an entry for the shot of the series.
But it was in the next two deliveries that the story of his Test career unraveled. First there was a slog sweep which was almost caught on the boundary, only to be declared a six because of the fielder touching the ropes. That was followed by the ugliest of hoicks to the same fielder a ball later.
Absolute horror. It was akin to Maradona scoring the greatest goal and the Hand of God one in the same game.
Rishabh Pant is a rare talent. However, if his first 15 deliveries were anything to go by, his presence in a Test match team will be a rarity in the near future.
His bat-swinging lacked planning and application, and he looked school-boyish at best. He was rather lucky that he eventually fell to a good delivery off Nathan Lyon, for 25.
All along, Pujara chugged away. He was definitive with his footwork, very assured with his leaves and played the game on the cricket pitch rather than in his mind. A hundred in England a couple of months back backed up by a similar effort here makes him the second name on the team sheet without an iota of a doubt.
Pujara added 123 along with numbers 8,9 and 10. His partners only scored 35 of those.
Pujara's innings was the only reason India might sleep with a thin ray of hope tonight. But his dismissal on the second last ball before stumps summed up India’s day, or rather, Australia’s.
In a rare risk, Pujara chanced the arm of a possibly tired Cummins for a quick single. Cummins hit the stumps directly, and Pujara was gone for 123. Australia’s discipline and daunting presence were summed up in one act of sporting brilliance.
Tim Paine was sharp with his captaincy, managing the bowlers’ workload with short incisive spells for the three pacers. But it was Nathan Lyon who was the pick of the bowlers, plugging away at one end, leveraging the encouraging bounce with probing lines and subtle variations of pace right through the day.
Each of the bowlers ended with two wickets apiece. The bowling was ably supported with some sharp catching and creative field placements, especially Peter Handscomb in a helmet at what can be described as a short third slip for Pujara’s soft-handed edges.
Australia have had a challenging year to say the least, but they came out today as a team possessed to turn that around. And they didn't look to do that with strong words and verbal jousting, but with tough cricket; with great skill, discipline and intent.
Day 1 of this marquee series will be best remembered for two diverse approaches - how hard Australia came and how hard-headed India were in attempting to gain the initial advantage in what promises to be a gripping affair over the next six weeks.