At the end of the first day of the World Test Championship final at The Oval in London, India would be grimacing while wondering what could have been.
They elected to field, applied pressure through pacers Mohammad Siraj and Mohammad Shami, got an early wicket but then got stuck into a gritty Australia that walked into lunch with honours at 73/2, having lost only the openers.
Then, in the second over after lunch, India sent back Marnus Labuschagne and once again looked like they’d tilted the game in their favour.
With the top three – Usman Khawaja (0), David Warner (43) and Marnus Labuschagne (26) – gone, India sensed all 10 Australian wickets on the first day itself. They had prepared for the top-order, got them almost with only Steve Smith remaining.
But Travis Head (batting 146) emerged from the bush, pummeled the bowlers with shots that kept demoralizing India. Australia went to stumps on the first day at 327/3.
The left-handed batsman, aided by the fact that India didn’t play the world No. 1 Test bowler R Ashwin in this match and was not peppered with enough short balls by pacers early in his innings, parried back with strokes and helped Australia cruise.
His onslaught helped Australia collect 97 in the session between lunch and tea and drive into a strong position. As many as 65 of these 97 were scored by Head.
That two of India’s four seamers — Umesh Yadav and Shardul Thakur — lacked bite in their initial spells gave Head respite.
They did not also have Ashwin, who usually threatens left-handed batsmen like Head. The India off-spinner has dismissed more left-handed batsmen than right-handed (241 to 233) in his career as against the other great Test off-spinner of this era, Australian Nathan Lyon whose dismissals are heavily skewed in favour of right-handed batters (311 to 171).
No wonder former India skipper Sunil Gavaskar was surprised.
“I am surprised. With so many left-handers in the Australian team, an off-spinner should have been there. They might have missed the trick,” said Gavaskar on air after the match.
The septuagenarian, who was the first batsman in Test history to get to 10,000 Test runs, was effusive in praise of Head.
“There were a few lose deliveries from Umesh Yadav that got him going. But Head made very few errors.”
Such was the domination by Head that by the time the match was in the third session, he was playing T20 cricket shots. He played the ramp shot to Thakur in the bowler’s 17th over. This shot came after his aerial shot over cover after leaning back to the same bowler on the previous delivery.
While Head was launching attacks, Smith at the other end kept a calm head and denied India any opening. Even as Head was running away at run-a-ball, at one point in time Smith had faced 160-odd balls for his 60-odd. He was unbeaten on 95 off 227 balls at stumps while Head was batting on 146 off 156 balls.
The two added have 251 off 371 balls so far and they are looking good for more.