The picture of the day came midway into the final session when Travis Head leapt mid-air to fend off a beautiful but nasty short-pitched delivery from Mohammed Shami. Only Head knows how he managed to get out of the way safely from a delivery that would have grounded him if it made contact. With super-quick reflexes and agility, Head jumped to fend off the rising ball as he arched backwards while simultaneously dropping his hands, even as the ball thudded into KS Bharat's gloves. The Indians in the crowd got off their seats with a huge shriek of excitement.
Shami followed it by banging in another lifter. Head watched this one safely zip over his head and the outstretched hands of Bharat for four byes. It was that kind of day for India where their bowling plans looked in disarray. Their bowling line-up was debatable, and while the bowlers themselves were honest, barring Shami, they weren't exactly disciplined, thus offsetting several moments of brilliance like the first of the above deliveries.
That over was part of a short spell of short and aggressive fast bowling deployed by India from both ends, with Shami and Mohammed Siraj targeting Head. In the previous over, Siraj had floored Head with a delivery that kicked from short of a length, and then followed it up with another rising ball that Head gloved to his helmet, eventually facing a concussion test.
But this late dose of aggression from India against Head had come in far too late: the left-hander was on 99 already. Why was Head allowed a free pass as soon as he arrived immediately into the second session? Head had faced just one short delivery in the first 29 balls. Not that he has any evident vulnerability against that type of ball, but an incisive bowling plan would comprise firing short deliveries on the middle- and-leg stump line while cramping Head for room with an aggressive field including a leg slip.
That is what pundits on air suggested. Known for not being shy to take on the bowling in his new avatar, Head might have fallen for their trap.
India's bowling coach Paras Mhambrey admitted the team faltered targeting Head straightaway. "We definitely discussed this amongst our bowlers: we always felt that was one area we could exploit against him," he said.
Mhambrey revealed that captain Rohit Sharma felt pulling the trigger on the short-ball strategy as soon as Head replaced Marnus Labuschagne wouldn't have been beneficial, even though it was part of the bowling plan. Head raced to 30 off 22 balls with six boundaries, and although he would soon be stabbed in the ribs by Siraj's lifters, he kept getting up and looked to score runs despite not being completely in control against the short ball.
"But we could have done it little earlier, may be 30-40 runs before this strategy could have been [used]," Mhambrey said. "But you have to trust the captain, you also go with his instincts, and he felt may be that situation [early on] wasn't right to use that kind of a strategy. But I thought we could have done it a little earlier."
A formidable fast-bowling attack has been the backbone for India's success overseas in the past. The one man missing from the line-up in this Test is Jasprit Bumrah, who is in rehab after a back surgery in March. But India have done well abroad even without Bumrah in the recent past only because the fast-bowling pack had shown patience, discipline and a killer instinct.
While the cloudy conditions on Wednesday morning, prevailing over the past few days, played a huge role in Rohit putting Australia to bat, while also opting for a four-pronged pace attack instead of playing a second spinner in R Ashwin, he would have had the confidence in his bowling to not let the opponent get away.
An hour into the morning, Australia were 29 for 1 after 12 overs with each of the openers playing out a maiden. However, the pressure lid put on them by the Shami-Siraj pair eased quickly as Warner blasted three consecutive fours off Umesh Yadav, who bowled just 14 overs in the day, and lacked control or potency. This was the same venue in 2021 where Umesh had troubled England with reverse swing and pace, and was India's best bowler in that Test which the visitors had won. On the first day of the WTC final two years on, Umesh was a bystander.
Shardul Thakur had started off with a good rhythm. He shaped the ball away, and was lucky to pick Warner off a delivery which could have been dispatched or left alone, but instead fetched him a wicket. But gradually, Thakur experimented with his line and length to Rohit's chagrin at times, and could never create any consistent pressure.
Another curious decision Rohit made was bowling his lone spinner Ravindra Jadeja well into the second session despite the left-arm spinner having a favourable match-up against Steven Smith in the recent Border-Gavaskar series in India. By then, Smith was on 28 and Head on 37, and Australia were 141 for 2. The Oval was draped in bright sunshine, and the pitch was starting to favour batting.
While Mhambrey remained optimistic that India could still regain the initiative early on Thursday, especially with the second new ball which was taken shortly before stumps, the challenge would be to rejuvenate his tired fast men. Shami, Siraj and Thakur had delivered long spells, and by the end were landing on a braced front knee, a sign of the toil they had undergone. Overall, the false-shots percentage induced by each of the Indian quicks read like this: Shami (25), Siraj (25.44), Thakur (18.52). and Umesh (17.86)
"In terms of the bowling, we could have been more disciplined, definitely," Mhambrey said. "We started off very well; the first 12-15 overs we really hit the right areas. But after that we weren't disciplined, and that's one of the reasons we conceded a little more runs than we ideally would've preferred."
India started the day with consecutive maidens. They would walk back quietly after Smith had hit the last ball from Shami for another easy four. It was a forgettable start for an otherwise proud bowling unit.