Blame it on the famed batting

It will never be possible to determine exactly how much of India’s conservative approach with the bat was assumed and how much dictated by an Australian attack that was patient and disciplined, but it resulted in a loss in position that the touring side never recovered from, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of India’s defeat in the first Test was that there were several moments in it when the touring side led by Anil Kumble actually engaged Australia as an equal. The good are judged on different scales from the average, and India, as a good Test team, had little business squandering the opportunity it had created on Boxing Day. Yet, so comprehensive was the margin — 337 runs, and third worst in terms of runs in India’s Test history — that it seems scarcely believable that India was ever in the contest. The culprits were the celebrated members of India’s batting.

India arrived in Australia senselessly late. England last season found two practice games inadequate, but the BCCI in its wisdom — and commitment to money-making — surmised one would do for its team. As Kumble said tongue-in-cheek after the Test, “batsmen are finicky when it comes to preparation, finicky when it comes to most things actually.” The Indian batsmen didn’t adjust quickly enough, but did they really need the time to acclimatise to a wicket that wasn’t dissimilar to the ones found at home?

The answer is subtle and two-fold. One, the wickets in India, though on the slower side, are generally better for batting than the drop-in wicket at the Melbourne Cricket Ground — the ball comes on better, facilitating stroke-play. It was a distinction Rahul Dravid made when India was struggling on low, slow wickets in the West Indies in 2006.

That said, there’s no excuse for not batting out 150 overs over two innings. And two, there is a difference between arriving in Australia and taking on its formidable team all in the space of a week, and getting in early, calming the mind, and paying attention to detail. Is it a wonder that many successful people in business and art extol the benefits of long, drawn-out lunches?

India fought rousingly on the first day. The team had to contend with Matthew Hayden’s sixth Boxing Day Test century in the last seven games, but Kumble led by example. Hayden didn’t find the strip to his liking, indeed telling everyone who would listen, that it was ridiculously difficult to score runs on.

He was telling the truth: through four days, the strip gave up runs grudgingly. It was moist on the first day and consequently slow, but it never did quicken. On the flip side, staying in wasn’t difficult; blasting wickets out was. In this context, Zaheer Khan’s delivery to rid India of Ponting — slanting in and straightening — was an outstanding bit of bowling.

Hayden’s innings wasn’t typically barnstorming, though it had its moments of heavy-hitting. He drew heavily from his time on the periphery of Australian cricket where he broke his batting down and pieced it back together, understanding its mechanics totally. There are few men better at the craft of making runs, playing the angles, concentrating over periods of time, knowing how to keep things ticking. The cover-drive with which he reached his century was instructive: it was utilitarian, a means to an end.

Michael Clarke, in Australia’s second innings, was another who showed the benefits of application. It will never be possible to determine exactly how much of India’s conservative approach with the bat was assumed and how much dictated by an Australian attack that was patient and disciplined, but it resulted in a loss in position that the touring side never recovered from.

Stuart Clark dismissed the top-scorers in each of India’s innings — the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar in the first probably the defining moment of the contest. That of Laxman ensured the match would end a day early.

India’s second innings was abject, particularly after its bowlers had done so well to fight the previous day. The chase of 499 was a bridge too far, but with over 35,000 Test runs between India’s top six, one expected stiffer resistance. “It was a collective failure of the batting,” said Kumble, pointing out that the Indian batsmen didn’t bat with the kind of freedom characteristic of their best moments. Indeed, India’s batting had looked strangely laboured, even factoring for the intense pressure Australia exerted.

Ponting made the pertinent point that though Australia had won differently, the margin of victory was reassuringly large. “We are used to blasting people out with slips,” said the Australian captain.

“We had to do it in a manner that was foreign to us here because it wasn’t possible. But we adjusted quickly, which is why we are such a good side not just in Australia but anywhere we travel.”

It was a Test of milestones. Sourav Ganguly completed a 100 Tests; as did the MCG. Brett Lee reached 250 Test wickets; as did Harbhajan Singh. Adam Gilchrist broke Ian Healy’s Australian wicket-keeping record of 395 dismissals, and was interviewed by the man he succeeded.

Australia drew one Test win closer to matching the record of most successive wins (16) set by Steve Waugh’s side.

THE SCORES

First Test, Melbourne Cricket Ground, December 26-29. Australia won by 337 runs.

Australia — 1st innings: P. Jaques st. Dhoni b Kumble 66; M. Hayden c Dravid b Zaheer 124; R. Ponting b Zaheer 4; M. Hussey lbw b Kumble 2; M. Clarke c Laxman b R. P. Singh 20; A. Symonds c (sub) b Kumble 35; A. Gilchrist c Tendulkar b Kumble 23; B. Hogg c Dravid b Zaheer 17; B. Lee lbw b Kumble 0; M. Johnson (not out) 15; S. Clark c Harbhajan b Zaheer 21; Extras (lb-5, w-2, nb-9) 16. Total: 343.

Fall of wickets: 1-135, 2-162, 3-165, 4-225, 5-241, 6-281, 7-288, 8-294, 9-312.

India bowling: Zaheer 23.4-1-94-4; R. P. Singh 20-3-82-1; Harbhajan 20-3-61-0; Ganguly 3-1-15-0; Kumble 25-4-84-5; Tendulkar 1-0-2-0.

India — 1st innings: W. Jaffer c Gilchrist b Lee 4; R. Dravid lbw b Clark 5; V. V. S. Laxman c Ponting b Lee 26; S. Tendulkar b Clark 62; S. Ganguly b Hogg 43; Yuvraj Singh c Gilchrist b Clark 0; M. Dhoni lbw b Clark 0; A. Kumble c Gilchrist b Lee 27; Harbhajan Singh c Clarke b Hogg 2; Zaheer Khan c Gilchrist b Lee 11; R. P. Singh (not out) 2; Extras (b-4, lb-3, nb-7) 14. Total: 196.

Fall of wickets: 1-4, 2-31, 3-55, 4-120, 5-122, 6-122, 7-166, 8-173, 9-193.

Australia bowling: Lee 19.5-6-46-4; Johnson 13-5-25-0; Symonds 3-1-8-0; Clark 15-4-28-4; Hogg 21-3-82-2.

Australia — 2nd innings: P. Jaques c & b Kumble 51; M. Hayden c Ganguly b Harbhajan 47; R. Ponting c Dravid b Harbhajan 3; M. Hussey c Tendulkar b R. P. Singh 36; M. Clarke st. Dhoni b Kumble 73; A. Symonds lbw b Zaheer 44; A. Gilchrist c R. P. Singh b Harbhajan 35; B. Hogg (not out) 35; B. Lee (not out) 11; Extras (lb-3, nb-13) 16. Total (for seven wkts., decl.) 351.

Fall of wickets: 1-83, 2-89, 3-139, 4-161, 5-243, 6-288, 7-316.

India bowling: Zaheer 20-2-93-1; R. P. Singh 16-1-50-1; Kumble 25-2-102-2; Harbhajan 26-0-101-3; Tendulkar 1-0-2-0.

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 lbw b Hogg 40; Yuvraj Singh lbw b Hogg 5; M. Dhoni c Gilchrist b Johnson 11; A. Kumble c Gilchrist b Johnson 8; Harbhajan Singh (run out) 0; Zaheer Khan (not out) 0; R. P. Singh b Johnson 2; Extras (b-1, nb-6) 7. Total: 161.

Fall of wickets: 1-26, 2-54, 3-77, 4-118, 5-125, 6-144, 7-157, 8-157, 9-157.

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.