New Delhi: Usman Khawaja combined patience with grit to raise his 14th Test hundred that guided Australia to a comfortable 255 for four as a keen contest between bat and ball marked the opening day of the fourth and final match, here on Thursday.
After dominating the batters in the first three matches of the series, the Indian spinners struggled to trouble the Australians with the Motera track, as anticipated, turning out to be a better wicket.
Khawaja, Australia’s best batter on the tour, was determination- personified throughout his six-hour stay as he struck 15 boundaries in his unbeaten 104-run knock.
At stumps the Pakistan-born Khwaja had Cameron Green (49) for company.
As a southpaw, neither does Khawaja have the panache of someone like a David Warner nor the brute power of a Matthew Hayden, who was capable of executing slog sweeps fetching deliveries from wide outside the off-stump. His game maybe pretty low on aesthetics but is highly impactful as he came across as a batter, who wouldn’t try anything which is outside his comfort zone. Anything pitched on his legs was punished through the leg-side while the occasional cover drive would come out of the closet, like one off Jadeja in the final session. Otherwise, it was just playing the ball late and rocking on the back-foot, while whipping Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja through the square-leg or mid-wicket region.
It was only fitting that an on-drive off Mohammed Shami (2/65), brought up what would be one of his most cherished Test hundreds that he celebrated with his now-customary leap in the air. For someone, who faced racism during his early years, with typical Asian stereotype jibes like “Curry Muncher”, life did make Khawaja mentally tough and he has shone through time and again during his second coming — be it Sydney, Karachi, Rawalpindi, Delhi or now in Ahmedabad. It did help that there was no devil on the Motera track and with no significant help on offer, India’s spin troika of Ashwin (1/57), Jadeja (1/49) and Axar Patel weren’t as effective compared to first three games.
Save Shami’s lethal reverse swing to get Peter Handscombe castled, none of the other dismissals came off wicket-taking deliveries and could be attributed to lapse of concentration on part of batters. It was a track where if one even got deceived in the air, the slowness off the surface ensured that playing on backfoot became second line of defence. Run scoring wasn’t easy but surviving and slowly building an innings wasn’t difficult either as Khawaja showed.
Twice Australia lost back-to-back wickets but prior to that and after that, Khawaja remained a constant factor. He had partnerships of 61 for the opening stand with Travis Head (32), 79 for the third wicket Steve Smith (38) and another 103 for the fifth wicket with Green, who counter-punched towards the end of the day. The run-rate of 2.83 would show that scoring wasn’t very easy, save the first hour when Head hit Umesh Yadav for a flurry of boundaries. There is nothing in the track and Australia, if they apply themselves well, could post their best total of the series.
Head, in fact, must be feeling horrible as he undid all his good work in the first hour by playing an indiscreet shot. He tried to chip Ashwin over mid-on without reaching to the pitch of the delivery. Ashwin had just altered the length slightly and deceived Head, who offered the easiest of catches to one of the world’s best fielders, Jadeja.
Head got a reprieve while batting on seven when wicketkeeper KS Bharath dropped a regulation catch off Umesh Yadav’s bowling. Yadav, who usually invites criticism for his inconsistency, was once again erratic as he gave a lot of boundary balls. Out of the seven boundaries that Head got, half a dozen came from Yadav’s overs.
The end from which Shami bowled, a lot of deliveries kept low and one such ball brought about the downfall of Marnus Labuschagne. It was an off-cutter and Labuschagne wanted to play the square cut but dragged it back onto the stumps. But then Khawaja took over and made sure Australia had their best opening day of the series.