Smith, Labuschagne and Pucovski scored a bunch of runs between them, but still Australia ended short of where they would have wanted to be
It was looking like the performance that could move the talk on from the batting ills Australia suffered in the first two Tests. However, despite three substantial innings in the top four, including a masterly century from Steven Smith, it did not quite work out that way in third Test against India at the SCG.
When Smith – having responded to three single-figure dismissals with his 27th Test hundred, which he celebrated with gusto – was brilliantly run out by Ravindra Jadeja, it meant Australia had lost 8 for 132: 206 for 2 becoming a rather underwhelming 338 all out. There is a lot to unfold yet in this game – India did well to reach the close two down on a surface that suggested it could start to play tricks – but they missed a chance to be far more impregnable.
“I think it’s a decent total,” Smith said after the second day’s play. “It would have been nice to score a few more – you always want more. It’s a bit up and down the wicket, we’ve seen a couple balls have kicked up off a length, a couple shot low.”
It was a ten-over period before the second new ball where India were allowed to get their foot in the door. Marnus Labuschagne cut a ball from Jadeja to slip where Ajinkya Rahane took a superb catch to fall in the 90s for the first time in Tests, his dismissal ending the second consecutive 100-run stand of the innings. But more culpable was Matthew Wade when he could not resist trying to take on Jadeja, instead only lofting the left-arm spinner to mid-on.
Wade had made the cut for this Test at the expense of Travis Head, moving down the order to No. 5, having accepted the challenge of opening in the first two Tests as Australia patched up their top order. Before this match, Wade had averaged 35.00 since returning to Test cricket; Head had averaged 30.62 in the same period.
This was the second time in three innings he fell to a misjudged attempt to attack the spinner. In the first innings at the MCG, he lofted R Ashwin to midwicket having eased his way to 30. Here his innings was still in its infancy but his intent had been obvious, peppering Hanuma Vihari at short leg as he swept powerfully at Jadeja and producing a brace of strongly driven boundaries as he moved into double figures. Then he advanced and tried to go over the leg side, but was nowhere near the pitch. It was a shot selection that brought a strong rebuke from Ricky Ponting.
“Matthew Wade needs to have a lot more game awareness,” Ponting said on Channel Seven. “In a situation like that, Matthew Wade has been opening in the last couple of Test matches so the new ball is not going to faze him. But what he’s done by getting out is expose Cameron Green to the new ball, a guy in his third Test, and for me that is just not thinking enough about the situation of the game.”
And the new-ball threat certainly came to pass. Cameron Green was kept scoreless and then worked over by Jasprit Bumrah, before being pinned lbw with the fifth ball of a classy over. After lunch, Tim Paine was cleaned up by a delivery that zipped back between bat and pad. Hopes of a total over 400 had become trying to reach 300.
At this stage, it was basically Smith doing the scoring. From the moment Wade departed until Pat Cummins was yorked by Jadeja, he made 39 of the 46 runs that came – four of the rest were byes that flew over Cummins from a Bumrah bouncer. On only three previous occasions had Australia’s Nos. 6-8 been dismissed for a combined tally of one or fewer in an innings.
Mitchell Starc then briefly stole the strike before Smith clipped a delivery through the leg side off Navdeep Saini. On completing the third run, at the end of which he nearly slipped in his excitement, there was a celebration which also looked like a release of some frustrations. Coupled with the low scores in the first two matches, it was his first Test hundred in Australia since he got one against England in December 2017, although this was only his eighth match since then due to his one-year ban.
“I read a lot things… and plenty of people said I was out of form so it was nice to come back into form, if that’s what you want to call it,” he said. “It was only about three or four weeks I think [since] I scored two hundreds at the SCG [during the ODIs against India]. It kind of just makes me laugh sometimes when people say that kind of thing, I missed out in the first two Test matches.”
Such have been Smith’s run-scoring feats that a few low scores will prompt attention almost out of surprise that they have occurred, particularly when two of them came in a defeat; but, in reality, he was always lower down the list of concerns. The fact Australia would have been significantly short without him highlights that.
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo