Patient Cowan earns the MCG's respect
It takes guts to attack good bowlers on the first morning of a Test. It takes even more to stand in the middle of the MCG on Boxing Day and deny 70,000 spectators the action they came to see. But Ed Cowan is a man who knows his game. He accumulates more leaves than a gardener with a rake. It is to his credit that in his first Test innings, he played his way and was not caught up in the occasion, nor the quick tempo set by his partners David Warner and Ricky Ponting.
At lunch, there were plenty of yawns in the crowd, and not only from bleary-eyed fans still recovering from their Christmas celebrations. They had seen their local hero, the dashing Dean Jones, present Cowan with his baggy green before play. Some would have preferred to watch a 50-year-old Jones pad up than Cowan, at the speed he scored.
Australia's new opener walked off for lunch on 14. That was roughly one run every eight minutes. At that rate, he would have reached triple-figures some time on the third day. Of course, that is not how a Test innings is compiled. By tea, Cowan had a half-century on debut. He was in no hurry, and nor should he have been. He played precisely how he needed to play.
It was good, old-fashioned Test batting. It was also the method that has brought him success with Tasmania. During the week, his state coach Tim Coyle lamented the fact that after Cowan became the Sheffield Shield's second-highest run-scorer for the 2009-10 season, he was told his chances of making the Test side would remain slim unless he could score faster.
"Then he had a period of inconsistency," Coyle said on Radio Sport National last week. "I think during that time he got some messages from the national level that he needed to score more quickly and impose himself on the game more. I think that was a poor message, because he went out and changed his game a little bit and we saw some inconsistent results.
"I think the watershed innings was the Shield final last season [when Cowan scored a title-winning 133]. He really played an Ed Cowan innings and that was batting a long period of time and blunting the attack and making a hundred along with some big partnerships. That's the blueprint for Ed Cowan. It's exactly what Australia need at the top of the order."
It's certainly what they needed in Cape Town last month and Hobart a fortnight ago. And last Boxing Day against England. This year, a stable presence was needed in Australia's increasingly fragile batting order. By the time Cowan was caught behind for 68 in the final session - the absent Decision Review System would have reprieved him - Australia were 6 for 214. The lower order fought later but at that stage India were on top.
It wasn't Cowan's fault. At the non-striker's end, he saw five wickets fall. Among those were David Warner, who was caught behind gloving a hook; Shaun Marsh, who was taken at gully driving on the up; Ricky Ponting, who edged to slip as the ball seamed away; and the captain Michael Clarke, who cut too close to his body and played on. All the while, Cowan made the bowlers come to him.
He must have strong hamstrings. His long lunge forward and across outside off to leave the ball looks like part of the team's exercise regime. By tea, he had left one-third of his deliveries alone. It is a trait largely forgotten by Australia during their frequent collapses. India's bowling was not outstanding, but early in the day there was some swing and seam. As Ben Hilfenhaus discovered last summer, though, the moving ball is dangerous only if the batsman is made to play.
As his innings wore on, Cowan showed that he had some impressive scoring shots in his repertoire. A fine cover drive for four off Umesh Yadav brought the crowd to life, and his straight-driven boundary off R Ashwin was one of his best. He cut well and proved he can pull, always returning to the leave, that critical part of a batsman's game that is often ignored in the nets.
Eventually, Cowan won the fans over. They rose to their feet to clap for his half-century, and did so again when he walked off with 68 from 177 deliveries. It was the highest score by an Australian opener in his first innings in Test cricket since Wayne Phillips in 1983. The free-flowing Phillips opened that day with the more dour Kepler Wessels.
Pairing a dashing opener with a defender is a fine philosophy that was worked throughout Test cricket's history. Cowan and Warner have the potential to complement each other like Mark Taylor and Michael Slater. They have a long way to go, of course, but Warner showed in Hobart that he is a Test-quality batsman, and Cowan confirmed his credentials today on Boxing Day.
And despite their early reservations the crowd appreciated Cowan's work. He was no Dean Jones, but he had earned their respect.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo