S. Ram Mahesh

India’s defeat confirms the enormity of the task that faces it

Melbourne: Australia’s 337-run win in the first Test, wrapped up in five hours of play on the fourth day, was the side’s 15th consecutive victory. It consigned India to its third-worst defeat (in runs), behind the 342-run and 341-run losses at Nagpur (2004) and Karachi (2006) respectively.

The home side’s wholesome performance — consequent of turning the thumbscrews of pressure so tight, India’s lofty batsmen could barely breathe — has left it one short of equalling the record of 16 successive Test wins set by Steve Waugh’s men.

For India, the defeat will confirm the enormity of the task that faces it. Three Tests remain in the series, ample time in theory to fight back, but unless its batsmen liberate themselves from manacles Australia has slipped on, it will be a long, hard month.

Saturday’s first few minutes were surreal. Ponting started Brad Hogg off at the Members’ Stand with a ball that was eight overs old. The giant tiered terraces of the MCG were bare — almost as if the contest in the middle were a pensioners’ park game, nothing of note hinging on it save the matter of who buys the round of drinks afterwards.

It was all a ruse: Ponting used Hogg to switch Stuart Clark around, and together with Brett Lee from the Great Southern Stand, Clark commenced a battle of attrition with the Indian batsmen. Each opener played a stroke of considerable class off Lee. Rahul Dravid off-drove the fast bowler, checking his follow through, while Jaffer rolled his wrists on a dreamy pull stroke.

Very few bouncers

The Australians hardly bowled a bouncer in the first half hour — surprising, for on a low track, given to variable bounce, the ball banged into the deck can seed deadly doubt. It finally came in the eighth over: Lee raised an appeal against Jaffer for caught-behind off a short ball, but, like Mitchell Johnson and Zaheer Khan before him, had over-stepped.

Lee, however, got his man in the same over with a delivery, short of a good length, that left the right-hander. Jaffer’s stroke was scarcely decorous — wafts with open bat face and planted feet seldom are — but it wasn’t singular; it was to repeat through the innings. With Jaffer’s catch, Adam Gilchrist broke Ian Healy’s Australian wicket-keeping record of 395 dismissals.

Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman appeared to settle, and while this pair was at the crease India had hope, even if much of it was inspired by past glory. Dravid constructed elaborate defensive strokes, keeping out Clark, Johnson and Lee for nearly two hours on Saturday.

As in the first innings, the Australians suffocated Dravid. He was given little on his legs and nothing to cut; scoring required him to force off the back-foot, making his own pace and risking a nick that would carry — a risk he flirted with on occasion.

Symonds, switching from medium-pace to off-spin in the last over before lunch, pinned him on the move. Dravid, beaten by the off-break’s trajectory and disguise in length, couldn’t bring his bat down in time even as his feet made desperate ground backwards.

Laxman and Sourav Ganguly’s partnership of 41 supplied India’s most decisive batting. Ganguly walked in after Lee had successfully set Sachin Tendulkar up with the short ball. The Indian great, beloved in Australia particularly after Sir Donald Bradman anointed him his successor, allowed the Melbourne crowd a moment of genius in what is likely his last innings here. But, the crouching square-drive off Lee was followed minutes later by the trudge back to the players’ tunnel.

Tendulkar in two minds

Lee bowled Tendulkar two bouncers. The first was kept down, but, it was evident that the batsman had been caught in two minds. At the second, Tendulkar aimed a woolly hook. The third ball in Lee’s sequence was short and wide. The flash ill-behoved a batsman of such stature. But, batting is an instinctive, reactive art, and not even its greatest practitioners are exempt from ugly moments.

The way Stuart Clark dismissed Laxman was instructive of how well Australia had adapted to the playing surface at the MCG. The only edges likely to carry were the fine ones or the ones when the batsmen thrust their hands in attack. Through the day, Ponting stationed men at innovative positions in front of the wicket. He himself stood perilously close at second slip.

Clark worked at Laxman as a locksmith picks a lock. Laxman proved equal to the task, pulling out several pretty strokes that were deceptively skilful. Finally, Clark persuaded Laxman to spoon a wobbly ball to short cover. For once the Hyderabadi’s silken hands let him down.

Ganguly, who slashed defiantly at any width on offer, was reduced to fighting a lone battle, as his partners deserted him with indecent haste. Yuvraj Singh didn’t survive a Brad Hogg flipper; M.S. Dhoni’s deplorably expansive drive at Johnson went no further than Gilchrist’s gloves. Harbhajan Singh’s inept run out (without facing a ball) underlined the difference between the sides.

SCOREBOARD Australia — 1st innings: 343.

India — 1st innings: 196.

Australia — 2nd innings: 351 for seven decl.

India — 2nd innings: R. Dravid lbw b Symonds 16, W. Jaffer c Gilchrist b Lee 15, V.V.S. Laxman c Clarke b Clark 42, S. Tendulkar c Gilchrist b Lee 15, S. Ganguly c Ponting b Hogg 40, Yuvraj lbw b Hogg 5, M.S. Dhoni c Gilchrist b Johnson 11, A. Kumble c Gilchrist b Johnson 8, Harbhajan (run out) 0, Zaheer. (not out) 0, R.P. Singh b Johnson 2, Extras (b-1, nb-6) 7; Total (in 74 overs) 161.

Fall of wickets: 1-26 (Jaffer), 2-54 (Dravid), 3-77 (Tendulkar), 4-118 (Laxman), 5-125 (Yuvraj), 6-144 (Dhoni), 7-157 (Kumble), 8-157 (Harbhajan), 9-157 (Ganguly).

Australia bowling: Lee 14-3-43-2, Johnson 15-6-21-3, Clark 15-9-20-1, Hogg 17-3-51-2, Symonds 13-5-25-1.

More In: SPORT | Today's Paper