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Australia v India

Six talking points from India’s magnificent Melbourne win

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

Ben Gardner considers six of the most notable points of discussion to come out of India’s series-levelling victory over Australia in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG.

After being bundled out for 36 in the first Test at the Adelaide Oval, some felt India were on their way to a proper hiding. Australia’s cabal of quicks were scenting blood, and with the tourists’ best player and talismanic skipper departing, the series could have slipped away quickly.

Instead, India bounced back in some style, sealing an eight-wicket win on the back of an unrelenting bowling performance and a century from stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane.

The game threw up plenty of topics for debate. Here are a half dozen of them.

Rahane passes biggest test yet

Ajinkya Rahane could hardly have been handed the India Test captaincy in more trying circumstances. His mix-up with full-time skipper Virat Kohli was one of the key moments of India’s first Test defeat, and the nation was still reeling from being skittled for their lowest ever Test score. The line-up had been weakened by Kohli’s departure and an injury to Mohammad Shami, and Rahane had his own iffy form to contend with too. He was without a half-century in three Tests in 2020.

With all that to contend with, the deputy turned in a career-defining performance, crafting one of the great Boxing Day Test tons, marshalling India’s bowlers superbly – especially in the second innings after Umesh Yadav limped off early on – and winning hearts with his gracious reaction to Ravindra Jadeja after the all-rounder had run him out. Should he lead India to a successful defence of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, the calls for him to take on the role on a permanent basis will surely grow loud.

India strike perfect balance

While the dual departures of Kohli and Shami weakened India, they were at least bolstered by the return of Ravindra Jadeja after his injury during the T20I series. Still, it was a brave move to leave out a specialist batsman in place of an all-rounder after the horrors of Adelaide, and India’s courage was rewarded to the fullest.

Jadeja has transformed over the last few years from a player devastating in home conditions but limited away into a multi-faceted cricketer who would get into most Test teams in all conditions on the strength of either his batting or his bowling, and time and again he contributed quietly vital hands. His half-century in a century stand with captain Rahane built an ultimately match-winning advantage, and he chipped in with two key wickets in the third innings to ensure Umesh’s loss wasn’t felt too keenly. With him in the team, India have plentiful and varied bowling options as well as enviable batting depth. It’s a team make-up they could well utilise in all conditions for a while to come.

India face selection headaches

Despite their spectacular performance, India’s coaching staff have some thinking to do ahead of the third Test. Umesh’s injury could well rule him out, but while Navdeep Saini is the back-up quick in the squad, it’s net bowler T Natarajan who has reportedly been causing the batsmen most trouble in practice. An elevation to the full squad and a fairytale Test debut isn’t out of the question.

They may also have Rohit Sharma back in the mix too, with his progression back from injury proceeding roughly as scheduled. Shubman Gill looked every inch a Test cricketer on debut at the MCG, but Mayank Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari, with a high score of 21 between them this series, may well be looking nervously over their shoulders.

Australia’s batting malaise spreads

Still, India’s concerns are nothing compared to Australia’s. Joe Burns’ pressure-free fifty at Adelaide looks a false dawn, and after another pair of failures he may well be considered unselectable. Travis Head is another around whom questions are starting to swell, and it speaks volumes that the players you would pick out as positives from this Test, Matthew Wade and Cameron Green, made fewer than 100 runs and no half-centuries between them.

And then there’s Steve Smith, whose current poor trot was at first a joke and now seems something more serious. He’ll be back, of course. But whether that return to form comes in time to rescue Australia’s series hopes is another question altogether.

Technology in focus after succession of head-scratchers

The MCG Test saw cricket put its own spin on football’s never-ending VAR debate, with numerous contentious calls leading to clamour to change the TV umpire protocols altogether. There were two seemingly similar run-out shouts against the two captains, Tim Paine and Ajinkya Rahane, with a frame separating each from certainty, and yet the first was ruled ‘not out’ and the second ‘out’.

Paine was then on the end of a controversial caught-behind decision, with the processes forcing the TV umpire to send him on his way, despite speculation from the commentators that an apparent edge recorded by Real Time Snicko could have been caused by something else. And even as the Test neared its conclusion, there was one more issue to debate, with Mitchell Starc saved from being out lbw by the barest of margins. With a succession of calls going against India on umpire’s call, the voices calling for the umpire to stop being given the benefit of the doubt in such instances only grew louder and more prominent.

Still, while there was plenty to talk about, taken individually it’s hard to find an actual umpiring error, and taken altogether it’s tough to substantiate any accusations of subconscious home umpire bias. There’s a reason cricket’s DRS dilemmas rarely reach the fever pitch of football’s technological traumas; for the most part, we’ve got it working just fine.

Siraj and Gill emphasise India’s ever-deepening depth

Both are inspiring tales in their own rights. Mohammad Siraj only bowled with a hard cricket ball for the first time five years ago – his ‘optimistic’ leg-before shouts suggest some of the finer points of the game’s rules still elude him. He played on bravely despite the recent death of his father, bowling skilfully and briskly to claim five key wickets. It’s a significant compliment to say he loses little in comparison to the man he replaced, but it’s also a fair one.

And then there’s Shubman Gill, who would get all his local childhood friends to bowl endlessly at him as he honed his nascent technique. Upon realising he had a prodigy on his hands, his father moved the whole family to an urban setting, where Gill could access facilities and structures to allow him to flourish. His first-innings 45 was brash and beautiful in equal measure, while his second-innings cameo was even better, certainly more assured, and exactly what was needed after two early wickets raised memories of Adelaide from their shallow graves.

But as good as those two seem, what’s scariest for the rest of the world is, there’s almost certainly plenty more where they came from; for the first time, India are getting close to maximising their endless talent pool. They might well be about to pull away from the pack.

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