Smith carries Australia ahead

Cricket Third Test: Stand-in skipper smashes third ton on the trot; India make solid beginning

Smith carries Australia ahead

India’s inexplicable inability to polish off the tail hurt them once again as the Australian batsmen took a full toll of the visitors to march towards a series-clinching 3-0 lead for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

As has been witnessed often this year, India allowed lower-order batsmen to flourish in admittedly good batting conditions. Mitchel Johnson and Ryan Harris raised valuable partnerships for the seventh and eighth wickets respectively with skipper Steven Smith (192, 429m, 305b, 17x4, 2x6), helping Australia, overnight 259/5, to recover from 326 for six and post a massive 530 all out here at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Saturday.

In reply, India had done well to reach 108 for the loss of Shikhar Dhawan who threw away another good start to his innings. India got off briskly with M Vijay (55 batting) and Dhawan showing positive intent. They didn’t allow the Australian pacemen to get on top of them and played freely that belied the score board pressure.

Vijay was middling the ball right from the word go, reflecting the form he is in, while Dhawan appeared trouble free until a Harris special did him in. The left-hander hung his bat outside off for the ball take the shoulder of his bat to Smith, who completed a fine low catch in the cordon.

That broke the second best opening stand (55) for India in 45 innings, the previous best being 56 in the first innings of the second Test at Brisbane. Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara (25 batting), who was dropped on 12, then survived some anxious moments to forge a 53-run unbroken association for the second wicket to deny Australia any further success. While the Indian batting was admirable, they have a long way to go as they still trail by 422 runs. The pitch is still slow and flat and it’s important that the current partnership grows on the middle day.    

Smith, who notched up his third century in as many matches, can hardly put a foot wrong these days. In the form of his life, the Australian stand-in skipper, overnight 72, produced another masterclass, pacing it beautifully. He maybe only 25 but he is mature beyond his age. Though he has been the best batsman in the series from either side, having already accumulated 567 runs at a staggering average of 189, Smith was happy to let batsmen at the other end take the majority of the strike.

His overnight partner Brad Haddin (55) set the tone for India’s ordeal on the day, unleashing a flurry of boundaries in the morning. When the umpires called for early drinks after 45 minutes of play, Indian pacemen had conceded nine fours. India needed an early breakthrough to keep the hosts on tight leash but their erratic ways -- drifting down the leg, bowling one short-ball too many and lack of intensity on the field – robbed them of their potential advantage.

The Australian wicketkeeper was under pressure having gone without a fifty in his last 13 innings but the Indian bowlers failed to exploit his brittle state. R Ashwin (3/134) once again bowled a tight and teasing line but with the pacers leaking runs at the other end, he couldn’t sustain the pressure.

When the veteran was finally out caught-behind while trying to leave a Mohammad Shami ball, he had added 110 runs for the sixth wicket. India had a chance to add another wicket immediately but a lethargic Shami stayed routed to his position in the middle of the pitch when he would have done well to return to non-striker’s end to collect a throw from mid-on with Johnson (28) well out of his crease. The left-hander went on to add 50 runs for the eighth wicket.   

Harris inflicted the biggest damage on the day with a brisk 74 (88b, 9x4, 1x6), his highest Test score. Returning to the squad after missing the Gabba match, the 35-year-old would have put some of the top-order batsmen from both sides to shame with an authoritative knock that hardly had the stamp of a tail-ender.

When Harris fell to an ambitious sweep, he was the dominant partner in a 106-run stand for the ninth wicket. Thereafter, Smith went after the attack in a bid to declare before tea and fell playing a ramp off Umesh Yadav. He may have missed a double century by just eight runs but Australia know they have enough and more on the board to press for victory.    

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