Agarwal, Pujara grind Australia down

Opener Mayank Agarwal scored a half-century on debut in a patient stand with Cheteshwar Pujara as India pushed to 123 for two at tea on day one of the third test on Wednesday as Australia’s bowlers laboured on a docile pitch.

After a frustrating session for the home side, seamer Pat Cummins had Agarwal caught down the leg-side for 76 off 161 balls, the wicket ending an 83-run partnership and bringing tea.

Pujara was 33 not out, with India captain Virat Kohli next in after winning the toss and electing to bat on a Melbourne Cricket Ground wicket that offered little for the bowlers.

Cummins earlier captured the first wicket before lunch, removing promoted opener Hanuma Vihari for eight, but Australia’s formidable pace battery was largely blunted by the lifeless pitch.

India had resumed on 57 for one after lunch, with Agarwal having impressed in a chanceless opening session.

He hammered Josh Hazlewood through the covers for four on the first ball of the second session, then danced down the pitch to smash spinner Nathan Lyon for another two boundaries.

The second, a glorious straight drive, brought up the 27-year-old’s maiden test fifty off 95 balls.

Pujara played a more circumspect innings, soaking up plenty of balls before letting rip on the occasional loose delivery, including a sumptuous late cut off Lyon for four.

Agarwal continued his assault on Australia’s premier spinner, slog-sweeping him for six after the drinks break.

All-rounder Mitchell Marsh, recalled at the expense of batsman Peter Handscomb, all but snared Pujara for 33 when the India number three nicked onto his pad and the rebound sailed just short of a diving Usman Khawaja in the gully.

With selectors jettisoning Murali Vijay and Lokesh Rahul, India’s new opening pair enjoyed a solid start until Cummins intervened with a rearing short ball that pinged off Vihari’s glove to give second slip Aaron Finch an easy catch.

That was the sole highlight in a tough first session for Australia, whose bowlers garnered little movement off the drop-in wicket.

New curator Matt Page had promised the pitch would have “plenty” after last year’s produced a dull, batsmen-dominated draw during the Ashes series and was later rated “poor” by the International Cricket Council in an embarrassment for Cricket Australia.

But after only seven benign overs by the fast bowlers, Australia captain Tim Paine introduced spinner Lyon to try to make something happen.

The four-test series is evenly poised at 1-1 after Australia’s victory in the second contest in Perth. India won the opener in Adelaide.

With Ravichandran Ashwin unfit, India selected spinner Ravindra Jadeja while reinstating the fit-again Rohit Sharma at six in the batting order rather than rushing seam-bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya back into the lineup.