It has been 11 Tests and a day over a year since an Indian bowling attack took four opposition wickets inside 20 overs of an innings, barring lowly West Indies.
They had taken the first four wickets for not much on several occasions in the duration – England had been reduced to 55 for 4 in 24 overs at 85 for 4 in 36.1 overs at Trent Bridge – but this was the most significant incision an Indian pace battery had achieved in some time.
Incidentally, the last time they managed to do so – when South Africa slipped to 74 for 4 in 16.4 overs in Durban on December 27, 2010 – played a crucial passage in India winning an overseas Test. Today, on day three at the MCG, Umesh Yadav helped reduce Australia to 27 for 4 to revive India’s fortunes and give them a strong chance of pushing for another famous win.
For the third day, this Test match turned and twisted like a rabbit’s run. First India surrendered 7 for 68 to slump disgracefully to 282 at lunch, 51 runs short of Australia’s 333. Then they pegged Australia to 27 for 4, before Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey – the fifth most successful Australian partnership-builders against India ever – put on a century stand. Just when it appeared the graying pair would run away with the match, Zaheer Khan returned to snap up two wickets. These engaging passages of play made for an absorbing day, but the one that could have the biggest effect on the result was Yadav’s success post lunch.
After their meek surrender with the bat, the Indians needed a lift with the bowl and it was Umesh Yadav who delivered just that. His success didn’t mask India’s frailties with the bat and Duncan Fletcher has much to fret about if India end up having to chase in excess of 250, but what the strapping 24-year-old did, in his first overseas Test, was to give Indian fans reason to cheer their fast bowlers on. It was a rare sight: a fit, aggressive tyro pounding in and delivering the ball at pace, and with wickets to show.
Just as he did in the first innings, Yadav took the first three wickets. He didn’t move the ball much, he didn’t need to either. His line and length and pace did the job. David Warner was the first to go, bottom-edging a ball onto the stumps while Ed Cowan was out three balls later, unwisely leaving a ball that straightened and he was struck on the pads, rightly given out lbw. That double-wicket eighth over gave India an opening, which widened when Shaun Marsh drove lustily at a ball outside off and sliced it back onto his stumps with a thin edge.
Ishant Sharma did his bit with the big wicket of Michael Clarke, for the second time playing onto his stumps, but the passage of play after lunch was largely about Yadav. Coming into this series, much of the talk centered on Zaheer and Ishant’s fitness and experience. Yadav, seamlessly, has gone about his work purposefully and with the appearance of being a spearhead, never mind that in the first innings he was brought on as first-change. He has bowled quick – consistently in the 140s and at times nudging the 150kmph mark – and straight. He has been able to move the ball away from the batsmen and has attacked the stumps.
Sample the dismissals of Marsh in both innings: as a result of a probing off-stump line, the No. 3 scooped to gully and chopped on to the stumps. Similar for Warner, who in both innings was dismissed playing attacking shots and hustled by pace. And if on day one Yadav pinned Clarke to the crease and made him play most balls in an over, today he fooled Cowan into leaving one that needed to be played.
After Ben Hilfenhaus’ five-wicket haul in the morning it was entertaining to see top-quality fast bowling from an Indian. Yadav’s display didn’t have the ferocity of Sreesanth’s second-day burst at The Wanderers in 2006 but it was the most fulfilling display of Indian fast bowling in recent years.
As if to remind critics that it isn’t always about pace, Zaheer did his thing with the old ball which delivered India’s second resurgent passage late in the day. Zaheer had bowled well in the afternoon but without luck – his fifth over to Ponting was superb – and called back to bowl the 41st over, with Ponting on strike, he delivered the sucker punch second ball. Ball slants across Ponting, Ponting chases it, thick edge to gully. How many times have we seen Zaheer strike with the old ball, in the middle of a tough time, with two set batsmen at the crease?
Spurred by his moment of success, Zaheer extracted Brad Haddin in his next over with one that angled from around the stumps and left the batsman who couldn’t resist having a feel. Those two wickets, produced with that trademark angle across the stumps, had brought India back into the game with Australia effectively 199 for 6. With Hussey unbeaten on 79, with the lead on the verge of touching the unattainable, more aggression from India will be crucial on day four which is shaping up to be a cracker.
Pace has given India a shot at correcting their history at the MCG. All seven of their defeats here have been monstrous; their last four visits to the ground have resulted in crushing defeats – eight wickets, 180 runs, nine wickets and 337 runs – and given the team’s penchant for starting series poorly this match was ominous. If tomorrow changes that, you can bet that pace will have its say.