Will Pucovski went home a happy man on Thursday. A month away from turning 23, the prolific domestic batsman has endured nine concussions and needed a break from cricket in 2018 due to mental health issues. The baggy green could have come at the start, and not the third Test in Sydney, but for his latest concussion in the warm-up game against India.
The youngster set aside those trials, and conviction in shot-making resulted in a half-century, 62 off 110 balls. It proved pivotal in Australia reaching 166/2 in 55 overs on Day 1, which saw almost three hours of play lost due to rain and a wet outfield. The positive start promised a big innings, after India’s bowler had prevented Australia from crossing 200 in the first two Tests.
Pucovski’s aggression and wicket-keeper Rishabh Pant giving him two lives, on 26 and 32, played a huge role in the hosts reaching such a strong position.
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The flat pitch afforded little movement for the pacers and opportunities were rare for India’s inexperienced pace line-up, dealing with injuries to the seniors. The Australian batsmen made their intention to counter attack and put pressure on Indian bowlers from the start. That made it vital that India took the chances.
Pant was inducted in the team in place of senior ‘keeper Wriddhiman Saha for his robust left-handed batting. The trade-off left India asking what would have been as they trooped off at stumps knowing they should have made further inroads into the innings.
Pant’s first drop came off Ravichandran Ashwin, who was brought on as first change like at the MCG.
With the drift and loop that the off-spinner generates, it is crucial the close-in fielders and the keeper work in tandem to scoop up any chance created. This time, Ashwin’s flight beat Pucovski as he came forward, taking the outside edge. It was so thin the ball barely deviated. Pant went at the catch with hard hands that were also not in the proper position, the ball bouncing off the left glove. Australia were 49/1.
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Pant dropped Pat Cummins off Ashwin at the MCG as India pushed end Australia’s last meaningful stand. But that pitch had more life, which allowed the bowlers to keep creating chances.
Any keeper can drop the simplest of catches, but for Pant it is becoming a worrying trend. According to Cricviz, since the start of 2018, Pant averages 0.86 dropped catches per Test. Of wicketkeepers to play 10 matches since then, his drops-per-Test record is the worst. His catch percentage against spin (56%) is particularly low as against his success against pace (93%).
The 23-year-old’s miseries were not over. Pucovski’s discomfort against the rising delivery, which has played a part in his string of concussions, was due to be exploited. The Victoria batsman was on 32 when Mohammed Siraj dug one in and Pucovski gloved an attempted pull. The ball looped over Pant, who turned and made ground to come under it. But he awkwardly thrust the gloves to spill the attempt. He wrapped the gloves on the ball as it was about to hit the ground. The umpire’s soft-signal was out as he referred the catch to the TV umpire. The Indian players started celebrating, but replays confirmed fears Pant had grassed it.
“It’s part of the game, we all drop catches. Bowlers do get a little frustrated when catches are dropped but you can’t help it,” Siraj said after stumps.
Pucovski wasn’t complaining. He helped raise Australia’s first century partnership in the series with Marnus Labuschagne after Siraj had the rusty David Warner nick a wide delivery to Cheteshwar Pujara in the slip. Australia ended with a healthy run-rate of over three.
“I thought he’d (Pant) claimed it, so I thought he caught it; maybe I have too much faith in people,” Pucovski said, having started to walk. “It was pretty cool to be called back. I was just absolutely loving it, it was probably my favourite day of cricket yet.”
Pucovski’s let-offs meant he stayed put till the 35th over, when debutant Navdeep Saini trapped him in the third session. On major reason for India’s grip over Steve Smith was that they had brought him on to the crease early with more life in the Kookaburra ball. With no such pressure on a good pitch, Smith was aggressive from the start. He flicked a length ball from Saini that was in the air but was far from Hanuma Vihari at square leg. Had the ball been hard, it would have likely stayed in the air for longer. In the four previous innings this series, Smith had to come in before the 20th over, and thus had to face a fairly new Kookaburra. On a flat wicket against an old ball, Smith can cause mayhem on the second day.
Pant and SCG
It was just the first day. Pant will have several chances at redemption, if not as a wicketkeeper then as a batsman. It was at the SCG that he scored 159* on the 2018-19 tour, helping India win the series after a draw at the venue. That ton propelled him to the wicketkeeper of choice overseas before he lost his place due to poor batting form.
This SCG pitch is likely to suit Pant’s batting style. It is slow and the Australian pacers too can have a tough job. But with off-spinner Nathan Lyon there, it will be interesting to see how Pant and teammates fare if they come under pressure, especially in the fourth innings.
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