An unusually long wait ended for Steve Smith on Friday. It was more than three years ago when the ICC Test player of the decade had last scored a ton at home, and with a push off Navdeep Saini’s back of a length delivery behind square, he brought an end to that drought. The relief was evident with the zeal of his celebration.
It was also Smith’s eighth century against India, which placed him in a pantheon of greats including Gary Sobers, Viv Richards and Ricky Ponting with most triple figure scores against the team. That he achieved it in 25 innings made him the fastest to reach the tally.
And yet, if those milestones were not enough to leave the Australian camp content on the second day of the third Test in Sydney, it was because Ravindra Jadeja and his golden arm never ceased to provide timely breakthroughs. The left-arm spinner returned with his best figures in Australia (4/62) before bringing an end to Smith’s innings with a cracker of a run out. Despite a solid start, the hosts were restricted to 338. In reply, India are 96/2 going into the third day.
Marnus Labuschagne and Smith began Day 2 with the same fervour and promise with which they had closed Day 1 and Australia looked set for a big total. With a Kookaburra that was over 55 overs old, the Indian pacers got little movement and the Aussie duo unleashed their arsenal of strokes.
A prominent aspect of Ajinkya Rahane’s captaincy has been to use the spinners as an attacking option. Be it with Kuldeep Yadav in the 2017 Dharamsala Test against Australia or with Ravichandran Ashwin in the second Test at the MCG. In Sydney, Rahane turned to Jadeja as the first change bowler on the third day.
With a slow pitch that offered little turn, Jadeja slid in fuller deliveries with slip, leg slip and silly point almost always in place. Contrary to Ashwin’s style of getting returns through variations, Jadeja often darts in his deliveries making use of the roughs in the pitch. The same game plan was employed against the two set batsmen, but no gains were in sight early on. The Aussie duo pounced on anything short of length and ensured the spinners found it difficult to find rhythm.
But two balls after Labuschane and Smith completed their 100-run stand in the 71st over, Jadeja got one to bounce higher. Labuschagne, nine runs away from his fifth century, made room to cut the ball but nicked it to Rahane at slip instead.
It was time to press harder. Jadeja kept the close-in fielders to maintain the chokehold even as Smith and No. 5 Matthew Wade brought out the sweep shots. Hanuma Vihari had to take at least three body blows at short leg, with Wade showing signs of going after the spinners. But in the heat of showing intent, Wade strode out against a Jadeja delivery that stayed low. A leading edge was induced and Jasprit Bumrah grasped one at mid-on.
“The idea was to create pressure as this wasn’t a wicket where you would get chance in every over. You can’t bowl all deliveries at same pace on this wicket as there was no turn on offer. You had to mix and match and create angles,” said Jadeja after the day’s play.
With the second new ball due in three overs and Australia on 232/4, the visitors sniffed an opening and went for it.
For the last six wickets only 106 runs were added, with Smith scoring 71 of those. It looked like he might run out of partners, with Bumrah blowing hot with the new ball in his hand.
Uncharacteristically, the leader of the Indian pace attack had gone wicketless till the 84th over. When he found his mojo, there was no stopping him. He first set up Cameron Green with four consecutive deliveries that probed the off-side corridor in the 85th over before angling one in. The ball hit the all-rounder’s front pad and the umpire had little doubt in raising the finger. With that India had reduced Australia to 249/5 going into lunch. It would take the fast bowler only two overs after the break to find Australian captain Tim Paine’s stumps with another of his trademark incoming deliveries.
It was now up to Smith to lead Australia past 300 with the tail-enders for company. Jadeja added two more to his tally and Saini another, as Smith kept finding the boundaries. In between, he notched his 27th century, the joint-most among active players along with Virat Kohli.
With his partners getting out, Smith looked in a hurry to amass as many runs as possible until it was left to Jadeja to again rise to the occasion, this time with his fielding.
With a sprint from deep-square leg boundary that would put a top runner to envy, after Smith had inside-edged Bumrah, Jadeja collected the ball with his throwing arm and while in motion found the stumps with a throw that came in like a bullet. Smith fell short by a distance.
“I will rewind-and-play this run out in my mind,” Jadeja said. “This is one of my best, a direct hit from outside the 30-yard circle … this run-out is the kind of moment that stays in your mind.”
At a venue where the average first innings score is 458 (based on the last five Tests), the sub-350 total looked like a favourable one for India. And Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill made it look even better, becoming the first Indian opening duo to stitch a 50-run stand in seven Tests. Gill, in particular, dominated with cracking back-foot punches and front foot drives.
Sharma, in his first Test of the series, however ruined a chance to score big as he played on the up against a low delivery from Josh Hazlewood, and was caught by the bowler. Gill completed his maiden half-century before going after a wider delivery from Pat Cummins and was caught by Green at gully.
With a deficit of 242 runs, the team now will look for a solid performance from a familiar pair–Cheteshwar Pujara and Rahane.