India-Australia 1st Test, a good appetizer for starters - Suneer Chowdhary Column

2008 Oct 13 by DreamCricket

The attritional play on display throughout the first test between India and Australia made for some very interesting test cricket. The match may have ended in a stalemate, but both the teams would have plenty to think about in the not-so-plenty time before the start of the next rubber at Mohali.

The attritional play on display throughout the first test between India and Australia made for some very interesting test cricket. The match may have ended in a stalemate, but both the teams would have plenty to think about in the not-so-plenty time before the start of the next rubber at Mohali.

The reason why this Australian team has not been considered as one of the strongest to have left shores was only accentuated in this match, especially in the couple of sessions between the third and the fourth day. Long departed are the times when the teams from Down Under would be able to press their foot on the throats of the opposition after having wrestled them down with considerable ease. On not too many occasions have the lower order batsmen troubled the Aussie bowlers, like it has been seen in the last couple of series that India has played against the tourists. Here, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh's innings were not only as valuable as gold-dust for the runs they added and the potential lead that they chipped off, but also assisted in changing the whole mood of the dressing room after they seemed down and out for the count. The burst bubble was bloating again, and an exuberant home fielding unit, with a lot more self-belief, took to the field second time around.

Again, with the current bowling line-up that Australia possesses, it would be a reasonable question if one asked how - and Zaheer Khan did just that at the post-match conference - would this team be able to run through the opposing twenty wickets. The closest they may come to doing this could be at Mohali, where the pitch could be a little more to their liking, and so would the cold and the early morning dew. One may not be too surprised if they got in a fourth seamer in Peter Siddle for the second tie.

That said, the Australian batting performance was of the top draw. It has been long since one has seen such text-book style defence from them, over sustained periods of time, so much so that even the author of the MCC coaching manual would have been proud. The cross-batted shots were eschewed for a more conservative approach, and although it may not have made for entertaining stuff, it was mightily effective. It was almost like watching Rahul Dravid - in his heydays - bat, only that this happened over and over again, during the Aussie first inning! Incidentally, it was only the duo of Brad Haddin and Shane Watson who even attempted anything close to being termed as a slog, and by that time, they had one eye on a declaration in the second essay. This style of batting seems to be a prelude to things to come in the series, especially if the pitches played as the one at Chinnaswamy.

Michael Hussey was the epitome of this Aussie strategy, as he looked to battle hard and even seemed to be progressively adapting through the course of the inning. There have been batsmen like a Mark Waugh or a Mohammad Azharuddin, or even Sachin Tendulkar, who rarely look hassled through most portion of the time that they are on crease, whilst there are some others as polarised as Hussey. Rarely does he seem to get his timing right through a large part of his inning, and yet, it is even rarer that he allows that to interfere with his vociferous run-scoring appetite.

It would be the understatement of the year, if one called the Indian spinners a major let-down. Or should one say that the Aussies handled the couple extraordinarily well? Because it has been almost three years since the Indian spinners collectively took only one wicket in the first inning of a test match, as it happened in this test. The last such occurrence was on a green, swinging wicket at Karachi, when India had bowled the Pakistanis out on the first day of the match, and Irfan Pathan had gone on to capture a hat-trick. But then again, it hasn't been often that Anil Kumble has gone wicketless in a test match. In fact, it is not only this test match that the skipper has not led by example. His form seems to have tapered off in the last couple of years, and what is worse is that his impeccable lines that helped him contain the batsmen when he was not picking up wickets, seem to have turned unfaithful. And if his hurting shoulder does cry out for rest, one could see Munaf Patel get a chance in the next match. What happens if Kumble declares himself fit with the bowling line-up for the second test is a question not too many would want to answer, just yet.

Whether it is because of this poor show with the ball, or otherwise, Kumble's captaincy has also left a lot to be desired. The field placements were rather unimaginative, and if one could sound a little harsh, negative throughout the duration of the match. However, the more surprising fact was that the Aussie skipper employed similar fields, and got better value out of it. The reason, one supposes is rather simple. The Indian fielders are no match to their Aussie counterparts, while their own running-between-the-wickets is more uncertain than the visitors. So, even with these defensive fields, the Aussies are able to asphyxiate the scoring - thus building pressure - while India still end up conceding the runs at a fair trickle.

It is often said about Harbhajan Singh that he is a different - and a better - bowler when he picks up an early wicket in his spell. It is also a known fact that when the wickets become difficult to purchase, his bowling speedometer begins to accelerate like it has just seen a ghost, thus reducing the probability of getting himself something in the wickets' column. While this would be passable for an inexperienced youngster, I find it highly surprising that after being around for ten years at the international cricket, Bhajji has not been able to remedy this. The Aussies would have studied this purported chink in the Bhajji armoury, and play him accordingly.

On the other hand, Zaheer Khan seems to be getting better with age. It was a revelation to watch him bowl with the older ball, and was almost reminiscent of those glorious days of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. The ball swung in more than one direction, and it swung late and at a reasonable pace. So, while the Australians looked fairly at home against their apparent 'Achilles Heel', spin, they looked all at sea facing upto both Zaheer and Ishant Sharma. And when it happens on a pitch that supports quick bowling as strongly as George Bush would support Osama bin Laden, the bowlers deserve a huge pat on their backs. The only worry here is about the amount of workload that both have had to endure, and whether they would be fit enough to bowl in a similar vein within the next three days.

It would be only natural to assess the four most talked about batsmen in the Indian line-up. And to be fair, all of them should be reasonably happy with the amount of time they spent on the crease. The pitch was anything but full of strokes, and Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly in the first inning, while Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman in the second did do their best to get the rust off their bats. There were the usual cons; Dravid kept nicking it more than he would have ever done in his entire career, Tendulkar did not look too match-fit with the willow in his hand and continued with his penchant of slowing down while approaching a landmark, while Laxman would have hoped for many more runs after his promotion to number five. Ganguly batted with his usual grit, but his fielding seemed to have gone down a couple of notches, so much so that it bordered on the realms of embarassing.

Overall, the Aussies would have taken more positives out of this match than the Indians. And as mentioned earlier, the conditions at Mohali should suit the visitors more than at any other ground, which should hold them in better stead. All in all, if this was an appetizer of a start, then the main course should only get better. A good advertisement for test cricket it was.