For the last 24 hours, all the focus was on India’s openers -- one a make-shift batsman and another a debutante.
A series of events – from injury to poor form – had compelled the team management to cobble together Hanuma Vihari and Mayank Agarwal (76, 161b, 8x4, 1x6) to open the innings. Vihari was playing only his second Test and Agarwal had had no more than two practice sessions with the team after landing here five days ago as a replacement. Whichever you look at it, this was a big punt by Virat Kohli. And the Indian skipper has taken several punts this year – from leaving out Ajinkya Rahane in South Africa to going without a spinner in Perth in the second Test of this series – without much success. So, this move was watched with both hope and trepidation in equal measure.
Of course, it helped that India won the toss and the pitch behaved more like Mumbai than Melbourne with Nathan Lyon being introduced in the eighth over of the innings, the earliest a spinner has bowled at MCG since recorded times. Still, Agarwal and Vihari had to conquer the occasion as much as the disciplined home attack. It was a battle nerves and the duo passed the first big test in contrasting styles. If Vihari did well to deny Australia any success for nearly 20 overs, Mayank Agarwal, who betrayed few nerves of a debutante, stood firm for two sessions before being dismissed at the stroke of tea just when a century on debut looked a distinct possibility.
By that time, the Karnataka batsman had done his job. He had shared a 40-run stand with Vihari (8 off 66 balls), the second-best opening association for India this series, and had raised an even more productive 83 for the second wicket with Cheteshwar Pujara (68 n.o., 200b, 6x4). While Australia did well to keep the Indian batsmen quiet, giving away just 57 and 66 runs in the first two sessions, the tourists were happy with the situation they were in because Kohli (47 n.o., 107b, 6x4) was always there to inject that urgency. And he did so in his inimitable style as India wrapped up the day at 215 for two in 89 overs here on the opening day of the Boxing Day Test on Wednesday.
With Pujara standing like a rock at the other end, Kohli took his chances. There were a couple of nicks that fell short or occasions when the ball beat his outside edge, but, by and large, he was in control of his innings. Mid-on was his preferred area of scoring as the Aussies bowled him too full. That there was not a single run through mid-off showed his restraint in not playing the cover-drive that often results in his fall. The right-hander, dropped on 47 by Tim Paine off Mitchell Starc towards the end of the day, added 92 runs for the unbroken third wicket with Pujara, who too picked up the pace in the final session of the day.
Earlier, Agarwal effortlessly slipped into the big league with an innings that was marked by characteristic flair and confidence. He just seemed to extend the good run he has been in for two seasons for Karnataka and India ‘A’. The century was his for the taking, but Pat Cummins (2/24), the only bowler to trouble the Indian batsmen, came up with a short delivery that angled into the right-hander. Agarwal looked to work it to fine-leg but the ball rose too high for him to keep it down and a faint glove was pouched by Tim Paine down the leg at the stroke of which tea was taken.
The Melbourne Cricket Ground wore a festive look with people flocking the iconic venue in thousands. Though the Aussies outnumbered the Indian supporters, the visiting crowd made its presence felt. Though Vihari never got going managing just eight from 66 balls, he did his job of seeing off the new ball. The fact that he was hit flush on his helmet by a Cummins snorter shook him up a bit. On a pitch where the ball rarely rose above batsmen’s chest, Vihari made the mistake of ducking too often and found himself fending at the ball. One such delivery flew to gully, ending his doughty stay.
Brief scores: India (I Innings): 215/2 in 89 overs (Mayank Agarwal 76, Cheteshwar Pujara 68 n.o., Virat Kohli 47 n.o.; Pat Cummins 2-40) vs Australia.