As Steven Smith and Glenn Maxwell trooped back into an appreciative dressing-room unconquered at the tea interval, Darren Lehmann opted for the opposite route, walking up to the middle of the JSCA International Stadium to see how the 22-yard strip had held up so well.
Contrary to the doomsday predictions emanating from the Australian camp in the main, the Ranchi pitch made a stirring Test debut on Thursday (March 16), providing the best batting day of a series that has been dominated totally by the ball. It was by no means a belter, and there is every possibility it will start to misbehave as the third Test goes deeper and deeper, but after the dustbowl in Pune and the up-and-down strip in Bangalore, this was as good as it could have got for the visiting side – no sideways movement, no appreciable turn, no great bounce or pace, and very little reverse swing, if any.
Making the most of his good fortune with the toss for the second time in three games, Smith continued to lord over the Indian bowling attack with another typically unremarkable but singularly effective compilation. His sixth hundred in seven Tests against his favourite opposition, and his 19th century in all, was the bedrock around which Australia erected an immensely satisfying 299 for 4 at close of day one that, in a welcome development, was about cricket and mainly only cricket.
India have had better bowling days, and their fielding has covered itself with greater glory in the past, but this was more about Australian application than Indian profligacy. No one illustrated that grit better than Smith (117*), of course. But it was the pluck and commonsense Maxwell (82*) showcased on his return to Test cricket after nearly two and a half years that must have gladdened coach Lehmann the most.
Maxwell was preferred to Marcus Stoinis ostensibly because he has greater experience of batting in the subcontinent and because he can slot is as the third spinner behind Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe. Taking the responsibility to heart, Maxwell eschewed all the frills, the Big Show nowhere on view in the early stages of his innings when a broad blade, an accommodating surface and no more than honest attack allowed him to play himself in.
With Smith around to shepherd him through any initial nerves, Maxwell got his eye in and played as significant a role as his captain to put Australia in the position of strength they find themselves in. India weren’t quite rudderless after Virat Kohli was forced to leave the park in the 40th over after picking up a right shoulder injury while making a diving stop on the long-on boundary, but they did appear a little flat and lacklustre as the Smith-Maxwell association grew in stature. Kohli didn’t take the field for the rest of the day, and while Ajinkya Rahane assumed the captaincy role, India did miss their tempestuous skipper.
In realising a towering, unseparated 159 for the fifth wicket, Australia’s first three-figure stand this series, they retrieved the situation admirably from a slightly dodgy 140 for 4 when Umesh Yadav pinged Peter Handscomb on his front boot with an inswinging yorker to win a leg before shout from Chris Gaffaney. Another wicket at that stage would have allowed India a dart at the Australian lower order even on this slowish deck. Maxwell made sure that wouldn’t happen as he bedded in for the long haul, content to nip and tuck and nurdle till his 57th ball, when he opened his shoulders and clattered Ravindra Jadeja over long-on.
Maxwell batted with greater freedom after that shackle-shedding blow, while Smith was his industrious self all the way through after having walked in inside the first hour. The Australian captain never cuts the most dashing figure at the crease, but he is the ultimate example of substance over style. He made the Indians bowl to his strengths, and picked them off when they did so. Several of his top-order colleagues threw away decent starts but Smith wasn’t going to fall into that trap, not when he was presented with the best conditions in which to add to his burgeoning tally.
There was one semi-classic cover-drive, and perhaps one dab-cut, both off Ishant Sharma, that sort of stuck in memory. Otherwise, Smith just kept gradually accumulating the runs in his fussy, unfussed fashion, the glue that held the innings together until in Maxwell, he found a kindred spirit with an overdrive in temporary cold storage.
Overdrive perhaps best describes Matt Renshaw’s effort at the start of the day. Having made his name as a grafter, he seemed to have swapped roles with David Warner; helped by a steady diet of half-volleys on his pads from both Ishant and Umesh, Renshaw’s first six scoring strokes were all fours and he was comfortably outscoring his more renowned aggressive partner during their third half-century opening stand in four tries this series.
Kohli quickly turned to the offspin of R Ashwin, in the seventh over, and the left-arm spin of Ravindra Jadeja in the 10th so that India had an all-spin attack going early in the piece. There were no alarms, no gripping turn and spitting bounce despite the initial dampness of the pitch. At 50, however, with so much talk revolving around the playing surface, Warner decided to take it out of the equation by toe-ending a full-toss right back for Jadeja to hold a sharp return catch. It was a gift India were grateful for.
By now, Renshaw had slipped back into circumspection mode, and the progress was stately when Umesh drew Renshaw’s bat magnetically towards a harmless delivery outside off, and Kohli completed a straightforward catch at first slip. Less than a quarter of an hour later, Ashwin had Shaun Marsh’s number on review, caught brilliantly by Cheteshwar Pujara to his left at short-leg, and India had pulled things back despite the loss of the toss.
Smith and Peter Handscomb repaired the damage with a half-century stand, the latter again looking really good until being undone by that Umesh screamer. Then arrived Maxwell — all passive defensive and orthodoxy to start with before unspooling into the more familiar ball-basher on his way to his highest Test score – and it was all Australia for the rest of the afternoon.
India have a long road back now after a fruitless day of labour. They missed their captain, and they missed a chance to get rid of Maxwell for 67 when they opted not to review a confident shout for catch at wide slip. Replays showed the ball thudding off the pad on to his glove before Rahane took the catch, but India themselves didn’t seem too convinced once Ian Gould turned down Jadeja’s shout. It really was that kind of a day for the hosts. All it produced from their perspective was four wickets, only 10 maiden overs, and plenty of frustration. They will hope the second new ball, and a new day, will bring gladder tidings.