Ahmedabad attrition: Shami and Khawaja lead traditional Test cricket day

Presidents of Pakistan and the United States, Ayub Khan and Dwight D. Eisenhower, attended the fourth day of a Test match at Karachi on December 8, 1959. Pakistan managed to score 104 for 5 in that five-and-a-half-hour day as they attempted to win the Test match against Australia. Less runs have only ever been scored during a complete day of Test cricket play once.

Sixty-three years and three months later, on the first day of another Test match, at a stadium named for one of them, Anthony Albanese and Narendra Modi, the prime ministers of Australia and India, respectively, were present. Ahmedabad saw faster runs than Karachi, but the pace of play was still slow. This felt especially true following the frantic matches in Nagpur, Delhi, and Indore.

After the intense action of those three Tests, you might almost call it a day of normalcy, but there was nothing typical about it in other ways. On the playing surface, the players did not warm up. Prior to the toss, the prime ministers rode around the outfield in a buggy decorated with bats and stumps while listening to AR Rahman and Salim-Sulaiman’s patriotic Bollywood music.

In order to balance the attendance of the paying public and special invitees, tickets for days two, three, four, and five of this match went on sale days before tickets for day one. The world’s largest cricket stadium was only about 60% filled for the first hour of play, which the prime ministers saw, despite reports before the game of record crowd sizes. Once they were gone, an odd thing happened: the lower tiers, which had been jam-packed with people wearing badges around their necks that said “volunteer,” started to empty out as the upper tiers started to fill up.

All of this was strange, but the cricket was old school.

It was the kind of day where your focus might go, but anytime you did, whether it was at 10 am or 4 pm, you were likely to see Usman Khawaja defending off of his back foot with his front pad deftly pushed away from the ball’s line of play.

On a day of subtle tempo and mood changes, Khawaja’s ageless, leisurely grace was the one thing that remained consistent. While India’s quicks took some time to establish their lines as the new ball spun around corners, Travis Head, who slashed at everything, rode his luck to a score of 32 off 44 balls. On the flattest surface of the series, he played and missed frequently, survived a missed opportunity, and attained a control percentage of 77, but India could do little against him other than wait for the next slip-up. Once it occurred, an error by R Ashwin to mid-on, the bowlers found their rhythm and took control of Australia’s run rate.

This group of Indian players has attracted a simplistic narrative that paints them as the embodiment of an aggressive, brook-no-questions new India, but their bowling attack’s poise and control have been crucial to their success in Test matches both at home and abroad. On this flat, opening-day pitch, it was now fully on display. After dismissing Head, India needed 289 balls to take their next two wickets, yet they only gave up 90 runs during that period.

The pitch was low and slow with little spin available, but India rose to the occasion with tried-and-true strategies. In order to protect runs against drives and flicks and to establish fields for drives and flicks in the wide V from extra cover to midwicket, they attempted to keep the stumps in play. They also hoped for catches if the batters played too soon.

India kept the runs low while they waited for errors to occur. Both Marnus Labuschagne and Smith appeared strong but were unable to escape India’s grip. Both players were dismissed in the traditional slow-pitch style after continuing to play with their bats just too far away from their bodies.

Attritionary thus far. In the Narendra Modi Stadium, it took an India bowler until the 71st over of the day to pull off a fantastic feat. That moment was created by Mohammed Shami, who somehow always manages to do it on seemingly lifeless pitches. He achieved it during a period of reverse-swing, but he did it in a way that seemed almost inevitable and with a hint of seam movement.

Peter Handscomb had a reputation for being a candidate for a leg by wicket; he would stand deep in his crease, wiggle his trigger back and forth, and frequently wind up on the back foot against full deliveries with his pads in line with the stumps. He has altered his set-up a little bit on this trip, at least when the ball has reversed. Even though he doesn’t cross his stumps as much, he still maintains a standing position with both feet within the crease and remains leg-side of the ball.

Green was then repeatedly hit by short balls from Shami. In particular on this low-bounce pitch against skiddy fast bowling, Green may have anticipated facing this line of attack as a towering man with a crouching stance, low hands, and a recently fractured finger. The full ball at his stumps posed a greater threat, though, and he was prepared to employ strategies to fend it off, even if doing so made him appear ungainly when it got close to his ribcage.

India took the second new ball, an over after it became available, after Green survived the barrage. They could have hoped that it would swing, giving their spinners a little more traction as the day wore on. It didn’t quite work out that way, and Australia advanced from 201 for 4 in 81 overs to 255 for 4 in 90 overs, with Khawaja reaching his century to warm ovation in the final over of the day.

Australia may have had the better of the day’s exchanges, but India consistently kept their scoring low. They will have kept a close check on the pitch the entire time, but it is unclear how long it will stand up in the scorching Ahmedabad heat.

In part to lessen the effect of the toss, spinning pitches were set up for the first three Tests of this series. India had intentionally or not set up the flattest surface of the series with a series victory and a spot in the World Test Championship final on the line. While India plays Test matches in October and November, these pitches typically remain level throughout both teams’ first innings; in the heat of March, there is a possibility that they could begin flat and quickly degrade.

How long it takes for this pitch to offer a significant turn could determine how the Test match plays out. Up until that point, both teams can anticipate plenty more traditional attrition while being watched over by a thousand life-size statues of their respective prime leaders. Despite leaving the stadium, they continue to observe.

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