Travis Head and Steve Smith took full advantage of a lacklustre Indian bowling line-up to stitch a mammoth 251-run unbeaten stand for the fourth wicket to put Australia in the driver’s seat by putting 327/3 on the board at the stumps on Day 1 of World Test Championship final at The Oval, here on Wednesday.
The day began with India bowling first, under overcast skies and fielding a four-man fast-bowling attack, with Ravichandran Ashwin’s exclusion becoming a huge talking point. They succeeded initially by reducing Australia to 76/3.
But Head, who was dropped from the playing eleven for Nagpur Test earlier this year, came out all guns blazing to lead Australia’s counter-attack and dishing out yet another memorable knock to bail his team out of a tough situation as Australia ended the day on a strong position.
As the sun came out and pitch became good to bat on, Head made merry by making an unbeaten 146 off 156 balls, laced with 22 fours and a six to score his first overseas century as well as the first-ever hundred in the short history of the marquee finale.
While Head was being the aggressor and was also aided in his free-flowing stroke play by Indian bowlers giving him width and overpitched deliveries on pads, Steve Smith was the gritty force from the other end, continuing his good run at the venue, as Ashwin could just watch the left-right duo stitch a superb partnership.
Smith held on despite not looking at his fluent best to be 95 not out off 227 balls, including hitting 14 boundaries. After initially bowling well and beating the bat a lot, India were very inconsistent and conceded way too many boundaries as Head and Smith piled the agony and tired them under the hot afternoon sun.
In the first session, Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami used attacking lengths and bowling angles to target Usman Khawaja and David Warner. Siraj got the breakthrough when he angled a fuller ball across Khawaja, who pushed it away from his body with no footwork and resulted in wicketkeeper KS Bharat taking the catch.
Siraj also got some variable bounce off the pitch, hitting Marnus Labuschagne on the thumb of his top hand while almost castling Warner with a delivery which kept low. But Warner managed to slash hard off Siraj and authoritatively pulled Shami for two boundaries.
As sun started to come out, Warner hammered an off-colour Umesh Yadav for four off-side boundaries in the 15th over. Labuschagne stood way outside the crease while bringing out punch and steer off Shardul Thakur for two fours, apart from surviving two lbw appeals off him.
But on the stroke of lunch, Thakur cut Warner’s stay at 43 as the left-hander tried to pull off a short ball, only for the glove edge to be caught by Bharat diving to his right. After lunch, India fetched success immediately Shami’s fuller delivery from over the wicket came back in and castled Marnus Labuschagne through the gate on an attempted drive.
From there, Head began his stellar show by hitting four boundaries off the fast bowlers in the first 12 balls he faced, with a glorious flick over mid-wicket off Siraj being the standout. He then took back-to-back fours off Shami flicking on his fuller ball, before slashing off a back of the length delivery.
From the other end, Smith hanged around despite not looking in his typical fluent self and flicking twice through leg-side. He was hit on the body by Siraj while Thakur beat him with the outswingers as the two fast-bowlers kept a check on run-flow.
That changed in the 38th over when Thakur overstepped twice, conceding a four to Head while Smith hit a superb square drive and flick to pick back-to-back fours in a 16-run over. Ravindra Jadeja beat Head on the outside edge and had the leading edge fall short of cover. But Head brought up his fifty in 60 balls with a well-timed punch past deep point for four.
He then broke a lull of six overs by making use of width from Umesh to crunch through point for four as Australia made the second session theirs’ with immaculate ease. Head began the final session by driving a half-volley off Jadeja and punching Umesh through cover to collect a brace of fours.
He cracked a cut past gully off Shami, before ramping off the pacer twice for four and six to get into 90s. Smith also began with a four, driving on width from Umesh for four, before driving twice off him through mid-on for two boundaries, to eventually reach his fifty in 144 balls.
Siraj used a sharp bouncer barrage and even hit Head on helmet, who looked uncomfortable against it. After facing a few bouncers from Shami, Head reached his century in 106 balls with a pull over backward square leg for a single. Runs continued to flow as Smith flicked off Siraj for four while Head punched Shami through cover for a boundary.
Smith took the attacking route by flicking Thakur for four, followed by dancing down the pitch to clear mid-off with a loft and timing the drive through cover to take two more boundaries. Head easily took four more fours, with Smith timing another one for a boundary.
Though India took the new ball, it didn’t offer much relief as Smith and Head continued to take boundaries off Shami and Siraj, with the former taking a four through an amazingly timed drive to end the day on a high, leaving India dazed.
Brief Scores: Australia 327/3 in 85 overs (Travis Head 146 not out, Steve Smith 95 not out; Mohammed Siraj 1/67, Shardul Thakur 1/75) against India.