Powerhouse Indian pair Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli built on an impressive 76 from debutant Mayank Agarwal to pile pain on Australia in the crunch third Test Wednesday.
On a docile, batsman-friendly Melbourne Cricket Ground wicket, India ground their way to 215 for two at stumps on day one with the rock-like Pujara not out 68 and superstar Kohli unbeaten on 47 as the bowlers toiled in hot conditions for little reward.
Pat Cummins was the pick of the attack, taking two for 40.
India came into the Boxing Day clash with a new pair of inexperienced openers after the misfiring Murali Vijay and KL Rahul were axed, suggesting a hint of panic as Kohli’s men look to win their first-ever series in Australia.
But the exciting Agarwal rose to the challenge in front of 73,500 fans after India won an important toss and opted to bat on a pitch that is expected to deteriorate as the match wears on.
He stroked 76 — the highest score by an Indian on debut in Australia — and was looking impregnable before Cummins had him caught behind by Tim Paine as he gloved the last ball before tea down the legside.
It brought Kohli to the crease to a huge roar from the large Indian contingent at the MCG, and he set about building an unbroken 92-run partnership with the ever-reliable Pujara.
“I’m happy, I would definitely take a 76 rather than something less than that. Saying that, I would have liked to have gone on and be there at the end of the day,” said Agarwal.
“Honestly, I thought they bowled extremely well and didn’t give us many loose balls. They kept it tight and they were attacking,” he added.
“We need to now try and post up a big score. The bigger the score the more pressure we can put on them.”
The four-Test series is tied 1-1 after India won the opening clash in Adelaide by 31 runs and Australia drew level with a 146-run victory in Perth, making Melbourne a crunch encounter.
Australia’s Travis Head said Thursday morning would be critical.
“It was a tough day at the office, grinding Test cricket. They batted well and we created pressure,” he said. “We need to make sure we come back tomorrow morning and bowl the way we did today.”
“Things can change, momentum can change and I don’t think we’re far away,” he added.
Agarwal, who has been in fine domestic form, scored his first Test runs with a three through the covers off Josh Hazlewood and had plundered 17 before the more cagey Hanuma Vihari, promoted to open from number six in Perth, troubled the scorers.
– Marsh booed –
After two lively pitches in Adelaide and Perth produced results, the track in Melbourne was not bowler-friendly and skipper Paine brought on spinner Nathan Lyon in only the seventh over to see if he could weave some magic.
But it was Cummins who got the breakthrough.
Vihari had already taken a nasty blow on the helmet in the 12th over, with the physio needed to check he was okay.
The right-hander continued but when he tried to avoid another brutal Cummins bouncer the ball pinged off his glove. Aaron Finch took an easy catch in the slips and he was gone for eight.
All-rounder Mitch Marsh was then brought into the attack only to be met with boos from a section of the crowd, having been recalled in place of local boy Peter Handscomb.
But Agarwal was unflappable and glided to his maiden Test 50 off 95 balls by effortlessly drilling a Lyon delivery past the non-striker for four.
At the other end, the patient Pujara deployed his usual blocking technique, picking off runs from loose balls.
He rarely looked threatened although he got an inside edge on 33 that just failed to carry to Usman Khawaja at gully before bringing up his 21st Test 50 from 152 balls.
Kohli quickly got into a rhythm when he arrived at the crease, accelerating the run rate as he rattled off a string of boundaries, with the signs ominous for Australia going into day two.
Pujara scored a century in Adelaide and Kohli matched the feat in Perth.