Patrick Cummins bowled 34 overs across two lifeless but hot days at the MCG. At the beginning of the third, no one would have begrudged him a morning and afternoon spent in and out of the ice bath, with the occasional cup of tea, and maybe the crossword, thrown in.
Instead, Australia collapsed, as they did in Hobart and Cape Town, Dubai and Nottingham.
The batting line-up is adept at finding new ways to fall down, as if cricket is little more than an adventurous game of Jenga.
It meant that Cummins had little more than a session of rest before he was batting, and that he was bowling again by the close of play. Bowling is an understatement, though. He ripped the heart out of the Indian line-up, single-handedly giving Australia a slim chance in a match they were surely ready to kiss goodbye.
The day’s immediate winner was MCG curator, Matt Page. After widespread condemnation of his pitch for two days, he would’ve been the only Australian hoping for a collapse. He got his wish, and some, thanks to Cummins.
Resuming the Australian first innings at 0-8 in response to India’s 7/443 declared, openers Aaron Finch and Marcus Harris started positively. A divine and deft late-cut for four from the latter was the first flourish of the day. Finch followed suit, dispatching Ishant Sharma to the cover boundary with a beautiful drive.
That drive was where the trouble began. The Indian skipper, Virat Kohli, watched the ball hit the rope, then began furiously gesticulating. Mayank Agarwal at cover was moved into a short wide mid-on, leaving greater margin for Finch to repeat his stroke.
Kohli may as well have walked up to the batsman and said, “Do it again, champ.”
Finch didn’t do it again. Instead, he clipped an on-drive straight into Agarwal’s waiting hands, and trudged off.
The move epitomised Kohli’s approach so far in this Test – assertive, and tactically astute. Before play the Indian fielders practised low catches on repeat, clearly buying into the logic that holds on slow pitches: fielders in front of the stumps are more valuable than those behind.
Finch is susceptible to straight balls, and was out in almost identical fashion in Dubai against Pakistan in October. That shot triggered a collapse, where all 10 wickets were lost for just 60 runs. History didn’t quite repeat here, but it came close.
Harris was the next pin to fall. Struck on the head by a short ball on day two, he is quickly going to run out of helmets if his career continues on its current path. This time, he avoided being struck by the ball from Jasprit Bumrah, but instead, he hit it off his top edge to Ishant at fine-leg.
That brought Shaun Marsh to the crease at 2/36. Marsh starts his innings about as smoothly as an L-plater starts an old, beat-up manual Toyota. The clutch drags, the car shakes, and anyone along for the ride gets increasingly nervous.
He hung around for a while, with Usman Khawaja in tow, but the respite didn’t last long. Khawaja, looking as graceful as ever, reverse-swept Jadeja for four. The very next ball pitched in precisely the same spot, but the result couldn’t have been more contrasting. Khawaja squeezed the ball off his inside edge to short-leg, and Travis Head walked out to partner Marsh. The new pair didn’t make it to lunch. Marsh was trapped LBW by a well-disguised slower ball from the uncannily quick arm of Bumrah.
Mitch Marsh, who bowled 26 overs, had only a session of rest before applying himself to the task of rescuing the entire schmozzle. He failed. Travis Head went first, bowled by the brilliant Bumrah. Then the younger Marsh departed, continuing the conga line back to the dressing room.
Paine resisted for 85 balls, the talismanic Cummins for 48, but the bulk of the damage was done. One by one, the Australians came, and then went again, their bowed heads lifting only to glance at the big screens to confirm their failures. For the top six, the time it took to walk off would have been best spent plotting ways to avoid eye contact with the bowling quartet.
At 3:47pm, Bumrah took his sixth wicket – Hazelwood caught behind for duck – to end the rout. Australia were all out for a paltry 151.
Kohli had the chance, with India ahead by 292, to enforce the follow-on. He might’ve been tempted to put a question directly to Aaron Finch, again – “Hey champ, do you want to have another go?”
He opted instead to make the Australians bowl a bit more, furthering their exhaustion in a way that may have ramifications when the series reaches Sydney in the new year. Pat Cummins, though, refused to accept exhaustion.
He took the ball at 0/26, with the Indian openers looking comfortable. Then, in his second over, he caused chaos.
Hanuma Vihari fell to a vicious Cummins bumper for the second time in the match. Cheteshwar Pujara, the first-innings centurion, was caught at leg-gully for a duck. His captain, Kohli, went for the same score in the same manner. Ajinkya Rahane was caught down the leg-side by Paine.
Cummins had 4/0 from his last 8 balls, and a hat-trick ball to come. The MCG had watched in horror all day. Now, they watched in anticipation, ooing as one when Rohit Sharma flicked the hat-trick ball narrowly wide of a diving fielder at leg-gully.
Rohit did fall before stumps, to Josh Hazelwood, and remarkably, Mayank Agarwal, made it through the chaos like a cockroach through nuclear winter. He finished unbeaten on 28, with his side 5/54. The lead, at 346, will take some chasing.
After two days at the MCG, a draw looked unavoidable. Now, after three days, and Pat Cummins’ heroics, the forecast rain on days four and five will need to be biblical to kibosh a result.
Funny game, cricket…