Australia have been left to rue a spluttering batting performance and a crucial dropped catch from Mitchell Marsh, after the five-time champions left India off the hook in a six-wicket defeat to open their 2023 World Cup campaign in Chennai.
With India 3/2 in response to a well below-par 199 after Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood wiped out the hosts’ top order in a mesmerising first two overs, a Virat Kohli top-edge with the score on 20 should have left India four down and in serious trouble.
But running in from in front of square, Marsh, seemingly distracted by oncoming wicketkeeper Alex Carey, failed to even get a hand to the chance, the ball spilling off his chest and safely to ground to compound an ugly match that included a duck.
On 12 at the time, Kohli, together with KL Rahul, would proceed to slowly but surely grind down the Australian attack with a serene partnership to avoid any further jitters, India recovering from the nightmare start to run down the target with six wickets and more than eight overs to spare.
The one sour note on an emphatic opening performance from India at their home tournament was that neither could reach three figures, Kohli becoming Hazlewood’s third victim on 85 with victory all but assured and Rahul clubbing Pat Cummins for six for the winning runs to strand him on 97 not out off 115 balls.
While Rahul was named player of the match for his perfectly paced innings, just as crucial were India’s trio of spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav combining to suffocate Australia’s innings on a challenging Chennai pitch.
Long a tormentor of Aussie batting orders, Jadeja finished with 3/28 off 10 miserly overs, his sensational spell including an early ball of the tournament contender to clean bowl Steve Smith on 46, before adding the scalps of Marnus Labuschagne (27) and Alex Carey (0) in a ten-ball spell that gave India a stranglehold on the match they’d never truly give up.
With figures of 1/34 and 2/42 respectively, Ashwin and Kuldeep were nearly as influential, the latter’s castling of Glenn Maxwell stuffing out Australia’s last hope of recovering their innings.
Adding to the visitors’ woes was a leaky performance from sole frontline spinner Adam Zampa (0/53 from eight overs), whose lack of accuracy compared to India’s spin trio was stark.
“Virat said that I should play like Test cricket for a bit,” Rahul said of his 165-run match-turning partnership with Kohli.
“There was a bit of help for the fast bowlers early on. Towards the end, the dew played a bit of a part for them… it wasn’t a great wicket to bat on, but neither was it too difficult.”
As for the gorgeous lofted drive off Cummins for six that simultaneously secured India victory but denied him his century, Rahul admitted he ‘hit it too well!’
“I wanted to get a hundred by going four and six. Hopefully some other time I can get it,” he said.
Speaking after the match, Cummins admitted the Australian innings was ‘at least 50-odd’ short of a competitive total.
“It’s going to be tough trying to defend 200 on any wicket out there… their spinners in particular were tough work out there.
“We had them 3 for none basically with our quick bowlers… if you put another 50 on the board there, probably that bowling innings looks a little bit different.”
As for Marsh’s dropped catch to spare Kohli, Cummins was sympathetic.
“It’s not ideal. It happens – 4 for 20 would have been a dream start, but not to be,” he said.
Having won the toss and chosen to bat on a tricky Chennai pitch, the Australian openers instantly had to deal with the menace of Jasprit Bumrah.
Repeatedly beating the bat in his opening overs, the Indian paceman struck early to remove Marsh for a duck, catching the outside edge through to a flying Kohli at first slip.
Smith started in a flurry, taking Mohammed Siraj through mid-wicket and Bumrah straight for a pair of boundaries in quick succession, and with Warner picking up the pace with two fours of his own off Hardik Pandya’s opening over, the first clipping the all-rounder’s finger and restricting him to just two more overs for the rest of the innings.
With Pandya’s first two overs costing 21, Indian captain Rohit Sharma quickly turned to his trump card; slowly but surely, spin pair Ashwin and Kuldeep slowed the Australian innings to a crawl.
Having hit 10 boundaries in the first 14 overs, the visitors would manage just one more for the next 17; worse still, wickets began to fall as the World Cup hosts took control.
Warner’s sprightly start was cut short on 41, scuffing an attempted loft down the ground to present Kuldeep with a simple return catch.
After scoring 27 from his first 33 balls, Smith could only muster singles off the slow bowlers, making just 19 from his next 38 before Jadeja produced an early contender for the ball of the tournament.
Pitching on middle, the left-armer found wicked turn out of a pitch offering plenty to fizz past Smith’s tentative prod and clatter into off stump.
Gone for 46, Smith’s partnership with Labuschagne had yielded 36 runs in 64 painstaking balls, the run rate falling to just above 4, and things were about to get even worse.
Labuschagne’s first hint at aggression brought his downfall, extra bounce from Jadeja catching a top edge from an attempted sweep and sharply taken by Rahul behind the stumps, the Queenslander spurning an ill-advised review just for good measure.
Carey, so often Australia’s saviour with the bat at the 2019 World Cup, lasted just two balls before Jadeja trapped him LBW for the veteran spinner’s third scalp; at 5/119 after 30 overs, the visitors’ innings was choking to death.
With little batting behind him, even Glenn Maxwell found acceleration a challenge, though he’d at least break the boundary drought with a slap through covers off Jadeja.
He’d succumb on 15, though, trying a similar shot off Kuldeep, extra turn from the left-arm wrist-spinner sliding through the gate and into leg stump; three balls later, Ashwin would have Green slicing to point for 8 to leave the innings in the hands of the tail.
From 7/140, that 199 was even reached was almost entirely down to Starc; while far from his usually aggressive self, save for a crunched six over mid-wicket to send Bumrah off in stye, found gaps regularly to add 28 vital runs, his wicket the last to fall as he holed out to deep square leg in the innings’ final over.
While Cummins was able to end Kuldeep’s spell with the first six of the innings and a lucky four off an edge that bisected Rahul and Sharma at slip, his attempt to haul Bumrah down the ground couldn’t clear Iyer at long-on.
Despite Starc’s late fight, a chase of 200 seemed well within reach for the hosts to start their home tournament with a win, but with the pitch still showing plenty of life, things could hardly have started worse.
A renowned early striker with the ball, Starc added to his batting exploits by tempting Kishan into a loose drive swallowed up by Green at slip for a first-ball duck in the opening over.
Hazlewood’s response was even more emphatic; first finding a nip-backer to trap Sharma plumb in front for a duck of his own, he’d complete a double-wicket maiden when Iyer tamely offered Warner catching practice at short cover.
For the first time in an ODI, India’s top three had all been dismissed for ducks, the hosts a disastrous 3/2 and an almighty job up to Kohli and Rahul to steady a badly shaking ship.
Flashpoint arrived when the Indian superstar top-edged an attempted pull in Hazlewood’s fourth over; only for Marsh, running in from in front of square, to make a hash of a straightforward chance, perhaps distracted by the oncoming Carey who only withdrew from his own catching attempt late in the piece.
Had the all-rounder held on, India would have been 4/20 with their master chaser back in the pavilion – while the run rate remained sedate as Kohli and Rahul looked to consolidate, it seemed the Aussies’ best chance had just been squandered.
Getting going with two serene flicks off his pads off Green, Kohli loomed larger with every passing over; with Rahul igniting to welcome Adam Zampa’s leg-spin into the attack with a trio of boundaries, the first two deft cuts with the spin behind point, order had been restored.
Kohli was first to reach 50 off 75 balls – his 67th in ODIs – via a serene pull shot that spoke volumes of his touch; an over later, Rahul’s followed as the pair’s partnership passed 100.
The worm had well and truly turned, with an attempted Cummins leg-cutter that missed the pitch entirely summing things up perfectly; not even Starc’s return could bring Australia back into the match, Rahul greeting the left-armer with a crisply driven boundary to move to 60.
With Zampa continuing to be concerningly expensive, a wide drag-down scythed through cover by Kohli to begin his second spell, hopes of a turnaround grew slimmer with every passing over.
The closest Kohli came to falling was on 72, when a Starc bouncer skidded past his attempted pull to catch him flush on the helmet.
Quickly passing the mandatory concussion test, the 34-year old calmly returned to the business of finishing off the run chase, flaying a square drive for four off his very next ball to reassert his control.
Just when a 48th ODI ton seemed inevitable, Kohli would finally pull Hazlewood to Labuschagne at mid-wicket for 85; leaving to a standing ovation from the Chennai crowd, he had already all but seen India home.
Arriving with victory in sight, Pandya had time enough to dance down the track at Hazlewood and deposit him over long off for the innings’ first six and dent the paceman’s impressive figures, Rahul adding a second a few balls later with an identical stroke off Maxwell’s off-spin.
A four down the ground next ball brought the runs required down to eight and the wicketkeeper-batter’s score up to 89, setting up a tense finish in one aspect at least.
Rahul, however, would prove to be striking the ball too well for his own good, a glorious lofted drive off Cummins carrying all the way for six to complete the chase – and leave him on 97.
Sharma labelled his team’s performance in all facets as ‘magnificent’.
“The fielding was something we really put our effort on. It was a great effort,” he said.
“We knew there would be assistance for everyone – the seamers got reverse [swing], spinners bowled in nice areas. All in all a great effort.
“You don’t want to start like that [3/2] when chasing a target. Credit to Australia, but there were some loose shots there as well. But that happens, you want to get off the mark and score quickly in the powerplay.
“Hats off to Virat and KL – the way they stuck it out there to create a match-winning partnership.”
For Australia, the six-wicket defeat is their third consecutive at ODI World Cups, following on from their semi-final and group stages losses in the 2019 tournament to England and South Africa respectively, having tasted defeat just four times across the previous four and a half tournaments and 20 years.