As is normal in India-Australia games these days, most commentators and writers concluded their overnight reports with the following statement, “The first hour and the first session in tomorrow’s game will be crucial to the fortunes of both teams.” More than being just an oft-repeated cliche, which it is, this statement goes to the heart of why India-Australia series are such gripping contests lately. If, for all five days of a Test match “the first hour is crucial”, clearly there is some good cricket being played; clearly both teams are playing fighting cricket; clearly, both teams are in it to get something out of it right until the last day!
India started the day at 311-5, perhaps slightly ahead of the Australians. India needed the night-watchman, Ishant Sharma to stay and make things difficult for the Australians. The long-haired lad, playfully referred to as, “Instant Karma” by my friends’ son, did just that! He didn’t score particularly quickly. Indeed, he didn’t score much at all. But he presented a straight bat and hung around while his partner, Sourav Ganguly, settled in for the long haul. When he got out much of the morning juice was gone from the wicket too. It brought in a fresh, eager and combative M. S. Dhoni to the crease.
Dhoni commenced his scoring with a hooked 4 and a breathtaking hooked 6! He didn’t look back from there. He mixed caution and aggression and, at times, bravado, to keep the scoreboard ticking. Ishant Sharma had been thought out of the crease by a Peter Siddle bouncer. And Dhoni had hooked his first two run-scoring balls. These two may have prompted the Australians to go down the dig-the-ball-in route. It was a strange route to take on what was a placid pitch. It also played right into Dhoni’s hands. He met the bumper-challenge head-on. He trusted the bounce on the pitch and either came forward or rocked back with time and panache. He looked supremely confident and followed up his confidence with bold strokes.
Dhoni’s aggressive strategy could have back-fired. But Dhoni is not the kind of guy that takes a backward step. Self-doubts do not enter his mind at the time of execution. He bases his moves on his self-belief and once he makes a decision, he does not back down from it. This reflected in his batting too. It was free-flowing and attractive. Captaincy did not seem to burden him. Indeed, as I wrote in my Day-1 review, captaincy seems to lift his game. He digs deeper and then, seems to express himself more freely.
Soon, the bowl-it-short strategy was discarded by the Australians.
Sourav Ganguly, at the other end, collected his runs in singles. He knew that his partner was batting really well, and aggressively. So, like the previous evening, when the run-scoring pressure was off his own shoulders, the old pro just rotated the strike.
At lunch, India was 401/6 in 111.0, with Ganguly on 91 and M. S. Dhoni on 45. There was no doubt that this was India’s session and the SBS score reads [India 2.75, Australia 1.25].
The way Ganguly and Dhoni were batting, it looked as if a score of 500 was quite easily possible. Indeed, that may have been the target that the Indians were aiming for during the lunch break.
Soon after lunch, Ganguly got his century. It was a well-deserved, gritty century by the old-fox. The Australians call him a “serial offender”. Well, unfortunately for them, he had “offended” again. The Australians would have liked him to cower down and disappear quietly from the scene! But Ganguly had other plans! He always has other plans, when it comes to the Australians! They bring out the fighter in him! Australian media often say: “he has had this habit, right through his career, to get under the skins of the Australians.” Why? Because he scores runs? Because he was better at “mental disintegration” than Steve Waugh was? I can never quite understand it. But here he was again. Making a century on his farewell tour against his favourite opponent — something that Steve Waugh couldn’t script!
Ganguly made his century off 219 balls with just 8 4s. Quite unusual for a Ganguly century becuase of the low percentage of boundary shots. He had run the singles hard and fought his way to this century. It may not have been the most attractive of his 16 tons. But it was useful and it showed that the old pony still had a few tricks left in him. As Will Swanton says in The Age, “His biggest accomplishment has been getting up the noses of a team which succeeded in getting up the noses of everyone else — Australia.”
The romantics in the press gallery may have wanted Ganguly to take back his retirement decision. However, after the game, he made it clear that there was no way he would turn back the clock! He indicated that he is committed to his pre-series retirement announcement.
In a bid to up the scoring rate, just after reaching his century, Ganguly gave it all away — as he so often does — and swatted a Cameron White ball down Brett Lee’s throat at long on. He departed for a well-made 102. If he had hung around for longer, an India score of around 500 may have been possible. Although Dhoni found a higher gear to improve the scoring rate, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan were unable to hang around and be a menace, as they had, in Bengaluru! Dhoni started taking the aerial route in a spread-out defensive field. And it was working. He had moved to 92 and was looking good for a well-compiled century.
But Dhoni’s plans were cut adrift by a wayward umpire. Rudi Koertzen, who did not refer a close Ganguly stumping call ‘upstairs’ on day-1, decided that it was time to bring the Indian innings to a close. With Dhoni just 8 short of what would have been a fighting hundred, Rudi Koertzen declared that Dhoni was out LBW. Even if one ignored the inside-edge, the ball was sliding down the leg-side!
India had closed their innings at 469 off 129 overs at 3.64 runs per over — and in 594 mins at an over-rate of 13.03 overs per hour! This is really a terrible over-rate and I am truly surprised that the Match Referee has done nothing about it this far in the match.
Australia needed a strong start. But that was not to be! Once again, Zaheer Khan breached Matthew Hayden’s defence in the first over itself! Make that Zaheer-3, Hayden-0! Zaheer Khan had backed up his pre-match talk with on-field excellence. Matthew Hayden is an important cog in this Australian wheel. A free-scoring Hayden rubs off on the Australian team. A Hayden in self-doubt (Ashes 2005, for example) passes it on these doubts the rest of the team! On this tour, Hayden has made scores of 0, 13 and 0! It may not be time to press the panic button yet, but with Hayden’s early departure here at Mohali, Australia was in trouble and it showed in the scoring rate. That initial loss pushed them into a defensive mindset. And the moment that happens, the opposition is already on top. Australia went to Tea at 13-1 in 6 overs.
Had Australia not lost a wicket, I’d have been tempted to call that an Australia session. But with the loss of Hayden’s wicket, I called this an even session. The SBS score reads [India 3.25, Australia 1.75].
If there was some doubt in awarding the 2nd session of the day to either team, there was no doubt in this 3rd session. This was India’s session all the way. Once again, given Australia’s terrible over-rate earlier in the day, play had had to be extended beyond the normal curtains-down-time for the day.
First to go was Ricky Ponting. He was out LBW to his emerging nemesis, Ishant Sharma for 5 off 23 balls. Simon Katich was next to go, bowled by the leg-spinning debutant, Amit Mishra. Mishra got the ball to hit the edge of the pad, bounce off Katich’s body and clang into the stumps. There was a fair amount of rip in that delivery to cause the damage.
Things may have been worse for Australia had Dhoni latched on to a difficult catch off the edge of Michael Hussey’s bat off Harbhajan Singh’s bowling. But that wasn’t to be. Harbhajan Singh was getting some turn although he tended to look for bounce more than turn, in my view. Amit Mishra was bowling well too.
But what was most surprising was the amount of reverse swing Zaheer Khan was getting. The only thing that the Australian bowlers had swung in India’s first innings was their hips! But here, Zaheer Khan was getting a fair amount of swing.
It is Australia’s mindset that was most un-Australian. As I have said on a few occasions in the past, once Australia loses that dominance-mindset, much more than just runs are lost. Other teams can sense an opportunity and start moving in; closing the gap. With Haddin, White and Watson to follow, Australian teams of the past will not have allowed the field to gradually move further and further in to take control of the game. This Australian team seems intent on “new age cricket” and what they got again was to put themselves into “defensive mindset”!
Australia had made 102-3 off 40.4 overs (at 2.49 rpo) when Michael Clarke was LBW off the last ball of the day. Amit Mishra went around the stumps and got a ball to just straighten a bit. As he had in Bangalore, when he fell off the last ball of the day, Clarke went again in Mohali. At 102-4 Australia are not totally out of it, but they are in trouble.
At the end of the day, the SBS Score reads [India 4.25, Australia 1.75].
If India can grab a few quick wickets on day-3, much of the debate will turn to whether or not India can/will enforce the follow-on! But Australia are not out of it yet. Australia bats deep and will be looking first at Brad Haddin, Shane Watson and Cameron White to make some big scores. Haddin is a good player of spin and played well in Bengaluru. Australia will also look to the lower order to contribute strongly as India’s lower-order had, in Bengaluru. And Michael Hussey is… Michael Hussey!
Clearly, the first session of the day is going to be crucial for both teams!!