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India out for 36: Australia's achievement right off the scale

To bowl out a team like India for 36, everything has to go right. For Australia at the Adelaide Oval on Saturday, it did.

You call that a deadly cluster? This was a deadly cluster.

As with the pandemic, nothing could have fully prepared us for this. Not patients or carers, not players nor watchers. It popped out of nowhere. It took on a life of its own. It spread. It went viral.

On a picturebook Adelaide afternoon, as the players from both sides busied themselves across the oval with their pre-match routines, taking their slips catches and their high catches and their outfield groundballs as they do every working day, nothing prefigured the miracle to come.

Another wicket: Josh Hazlewood celebrates.

Another wicket: Josh Hazlewood celebrates.Credit:AP

Asked what might make a defensible target for India, R Ashwin said it was a good day’s batting away. Australia’s dilemma was that if they did their job too well and bowled India out in, say 60 or 70 overs, it would expose their makeshift opening pair to the terrors of the new ball under the night lights. It was their underbelly then.

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Australia’s only other option was to finish the match before nightfall. As if.

The explanation for this seemingly freak happening is as simple as it is ageless. Pitch up at high pace, give the ball a chance to seam, perhaps lift from a length, too. None of the wicket-taking balls hit the stumps, but most of them would have. On Australian pitches, it’s every team’s plan, every time. It’s just that only once every century or so does it work like this.

Every good ball took an edge, every edge went to fieldsman, every fieldsman caught it. Five went to wicketkeeper Tim Paine, the safest hands. None needed a dive or other acrobatics; in footy terms, they came lace out. Even the one catch that was dropped was re-caught, by the tryo Cameron Green lunging forward from gully and clutching the rebound to his chest as he rolled. It had to be Virat Kohli, and it was.

Contact tracing was simple: it was the outside edge every time. When necessary, DRS confirmed it, without grey area. Imagine that.

This is now an authentically great Australian seam attack, but they will never have a day quite like this again. Pat Cummins was breathtaking and on the way took his 150th Test wicket, average 21. Josh Hazlewood saw him and upped him one, and now has 200 Test wickets, average 25.

Mitch Starc didn’t get another bowl after his first. Nathan Lyon didn’t get one at all. He had been speculated on as the key to his day, but that was when contemplating an orthodox day in a Test match escalating in the regular way. That was another day.

Every Indian defensive prod had its price. Nearly all of the few attacking strokes proved false. Kohli tried to change the terms. One ball went for four through gully, the next was caught there.

India’s batting is competent, and can be formidable. Most Indian batsman can play long innings, and all are attuned to vast scores. This day, none made it to double figures. That won’t happen again. This day, India made 36. That has never happened before. On a different day, in another format, Kohli might fancy making 36 by himself in an over.

Australia has had days like this, in Cape Town and in Hobart, for example, to set against days when it made 600 and 700. Thirty-six all out is one of Test cricket’s infinite possibilities, but almost right off the scale. This is the untouchable game’s great charm. It only ever takes 10 balls to bowl out a team, but most days those 10 are spread between hundreds of others, and some days even Australia doesn’t get to 10. This day, they got there almost in fewer balls than in a Big Bash League innings.

For a bit more than an hour, Adelaide Oval was in a trance. Truth be told, the crowd was thinner than authorities might have wished. Let’s just say that there was ample room for social distancing. But those who were there now have lifetime's boasting ahead of them.

Even the broadcasters, not known for their nuance, grasped that this was a moment not quite like any other. Spidercam roam the ground without restrictions, but for once did not descend on the bowlers as they exited the stage.

This called for a solo bow, and Hazlewood got it, with Cummins leading the applause. There was another illustration of the how this day was one out of the box. Cummins will have other days when he will bowl half as well and win man-of-the-match. This day, he got only to do the honours.

So it was that a day that had begun under a pall of bad news from Sydney finished with an other-worldly glow upon it for Australia.

What next? Kohli goes home, for one. India won’t have to isolate as a result of this sudden seizure, but they will feel quite alone. For Australia, the bowlers again have papered over the batting cracks. Last summer, they were not so evident, but Pakistan in Australia is a toothless tiger and New Zealand a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

India is, or was, presenting a sterner challenge. Still, when all else fails, they could bowl their opponents out for 36. It can happen. It just did.

Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.

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