Australia are in a prime position to win their first Test in India since 2004 after scything through the home side’s batting line-up thanks to a phenomenal six-wicket spell by Steve O’Keefe.
As I wrote yesterday, Australia’s first innings score of 260 at Pune was a solid total on a pitch which was offering wild turn and bounce and fostering reverse swing for the quicks.
It became much better than solid when India capitulated for 105, handing Australia a 155-run lead. By stumps, Australia had extended that lead to an imposing 298.
Captain Steve Smith led the way with a fluent knock of 59 not out, countering the difficult conditions by showing aggression and putting pressure on the Indian spinners. He received fine support from rookie opener Matt Renshaw, who backed up his wonderful knock of 68 in the first innings by making a valuable 31.
Earlier, O’Keefe turned in the best spell by a visiting spinner in India since Michael Clarke snared 6-9 back in 2004.
Strangely enough, O’Keefe started the innings horribly – in his first six overs he was uncharacteristically wayward, spraying the ball all over the pitch.
Predictably, Shane Warne started tearing apart O’Keefe on the TV commentary and fans swarmed the internet to claim they’d been proven right and the spinner was, in fact, useless.
An hour later O’Keefe’s battalion of critics were left gasping for air after he destroyed the Indian batting line-up during a spell of 6-5 from 4.2 overs.
But it was far from a single-handed performance by O’Keefe – all the Australian bowlers were brilliant. The rot was started by the world’s top-ranked Test paceman Josh Hazlewood. The uber-accurate seamer was denied the new ball, which was instead given to O’Keefe and Mitchell Starc.
When he got the ball in the seventh over he immediately found some reverse swing, enough to defeat classy Indian opener Murali Vijay, who has an exceptional Test record against Australia.
Hazlewood conceded just 11 runs from his seven overs and built pressure upon which his colleagues capitalised. After being blunted with the new ball, Starc returned and also exploited the reverse movement.
First he undid Cheteshwar Pujara with a savage delivery which reared off a length and took Pujara’s glove on the way through to keeper Matthew Wade.
Then he sucked in Virat Kohli with a wide, juicy delivery. The Indian captain, who has dominated the Test format over the past 12 months, launched an airy drive and succeeded only in feeding Peter Handscomb at second slip.
With their three most important batsmen gone, India looked shellshocked at 3-44. Cavalier opener KL Rahul and reliable middle order man Ajinkya Rahane settled things down, putting on a 50-run stand.
That’s when the carnage began. Rahul had been flirting with danger by throwing his hands at wide deliveries from the quicks.
Then he charged O’Keefe and tried to slog him over long off. The ball ballooned up in the air and landed safely in the mitts of David Warner.
Two balls later O’Keefe managed to square up Rahane and earn an edge to second slip. The Aussie spinner incredibly made it three wickets in the over when he coaxed a nervous prod from keeper Wriddhiman Saha, who also edged to slip.
Soon after, Wade belied his reputation as a poor gloveman by executing the sharpest of stumpings off O’Keefe, catching Jayant Yadav just short of his ground.
By the time Ravi Jadeja and Umesh Yadav gifted their wickets with wild slogs O’Keefe had completed the most astonishing spell.
While O’Keefe was the one with the eye-catching figures, his spin counterpart Lyon was also very impressive. The off spinner maintained a perfect in-between length, leaving the Indian batsmen unsure as to whether to go forward or back.
He actually looked much more threatening than O’Keefe up until the left armer’s devastating burst. But, across the five Tests they have played together, O’Keefe has massively outperformed Lyon, taking 20 wickets at 25, compared to Lyon’s 16 wickets at 43.
Regardless, Australia will be delighted to see their spin duo proving so effective in their first outing of what shapes as a massively challenging series.
This Test is not yet over as India’s batting line-up is commanding and deep. But O’Keefe’s beguiling spell has left Australia on the verge of what would be a famous victory.