International cricket, back at the SCG. There has been just about no better sight in 2020 for fans, players and officials alike as India kicked off their long-awaited tour of Australia.
And even though the game ended up a little one-sided by the time it was all said and done, when you consider the last game held in Australia was also at the SCG in front of no fans just a week before New South Wales went into lockdown, it was a sight for sore eyes to see a 50 per cent full SCG cheering on two of the best teams in the world, even if the standard of cricket wasn’t quite at that level.
Instead of hitting the ground running as you’d expect at the start of a big tour like this, India hit the ground and then just sort of lay there waiting for things to happen.
India were a step slow in the field, gifting Australia lifelines and opportunities, and bowled poorly, before batting like they were chasing ten runs per over instead of seven to lose multiple top-order wickets before they could mount a serious chase.
It was Australia’s 374 that set up the win, on the back of big centuries from both Aaron Finch and Steve Smith, the latter of whom belted the third-quickest in Australia’s ODI history.
The performance from Smith was something to behold as he picked up Australia and took them to a remarkable score.
Australia’s early bowling might have been a cause for concern during the run chase, but the way they were able to capitalise on a start and put up a big total with the bat that was almost ungettable was something Australian cricket has been yearning for in the shortest form of the game.
Whereas the hosts have often previously struggled to go on with things after getting a good start off the blade of David Warner and Aaron Finch, there were no such issues as international cricket returned to Sydney.
Finch seemed to struggle to up the ante for a little while, but the former captain Smith had no such problems, belting boundaries, rotating strike and not putting a foot wrong in his outstanding innings of 105 from just 66 balls.
The difference between Finch and Warner at the top of the order was astronomical in terms of dot balls and the rate at which singles were taken, with Warner constantly looking to put pressure on the Indian field and doing so with great success.
While Finch also ended up with a century, Australia still have some kinks to iron out in the batting. Whether it’s Marcus Stoinis’ duck or the way Finch seemed to soak up a lot of dot balls, they are problems that have haunted Australia over the past couple of years in this format of the game.
On this occasion, Smith and Glenn Maxwell (45 off 19) bailed Australia out, but they have been in this position plenty of times before only to stumble their way to a score short of 300.
This sort of performance with the bat is one Australia need to build on and consistently do moving forward.
The pitch encountered in Sydney is likely to be similar to the ones rolled out when the World Cup heads to India in 2023, and so every game on one like it is a chance for a team like Australia to come to grips with what will be required to re-ascend to the top of the cricketing world.
Of course, any potential problems Australia might have faced in their batting performance were nothing compared to those India had in the field.
They looked a team who were slow, lethargic and didn’t want to be there. Sure, they have travelled and been in quarantine, but taking almost four hours and ten minutes to bowl their 50 overs proved exactly where they were at.
Minimal intensity and fielding that would have made the local third-grade captain grimace, backed up by bowling in average areas on a pitch they struggled to adapt to, summed up the beginning of their tour in the field.
It’s a big if at this stage – because you would expect a team under the leadership of Virat Kohli to improve the longer they are in Australia – but if they don’t, they will be lucky to win a game in any format this summer.
That is how bad it was.
And frankly, their fielding effort was just the tip of the iceberg.
Instead of capitalising on their own start where they plundered Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood through the first spell, there were some very, very poor shots.
Mayank Agrawal holed out to cover as he looked for a boundary to a short ball, Virat Kohli was dropped once and then dismissed a handful of overs later, and the poor shots continued the further you looked down the order.
Hardik Pandya (90 off 76) and Shikhar Dhawan (74 off 86) gave India a fighting chance with some excellent batting through the middle overs, but it was never to be. As they departed, so did any hopes for the tourists of taking a one-nothing lead in the series.
Australia’s bowling left plenty to be desired, and while India are likely to improve the longer things go on in this tour, the Aussies will be wondering why Mitchell Starc couldn’t land the ball during his first spell, and why they couldn’t control the partnership once it got going, or the run rate early.
They won, and in the context of World Cup qualification, it was an incredibly important one, but the men in green and gold have work to do if they want to keep winning.
It was one of those games that was, frankly, weird. It was slow from start to finish, taking well over eight hours to get through, and the fielding was very average from both sides.
It’s almost as if not playing international cricket or this format for nearly eight months combined with a two-week quarantine messed with everyone, meaning there was a mountain of rust to shake off.
At this level, it’s hard to buy that as an excuse. Regardless, Australia take a one-nil lead in the series and now look ahead to Sunday’s Sydney scorcher (seriously, check the forecast!) for Game 2, a game both teams will be looking to improve in as India work into their tour and Australia resume playing cricket.