Australia v India, 1st Test, MCG, 3rd day December 28, 2011

MCG pitch gives Test perfect narrative

The MCG has provided the pitch and the stage to two less-than-perfect teams to weave together the perfect narrative that has kept everyone - batsmen, bowler, and spectators - interested

If you didn't allow yourself to be distracted by the chatter about the Decision Review System, a far better story lay there before you: Test cricket in its finest suit. The MCG has provided the pitch and the stage to two less-than-perfect teams to weave together the perfect narrative that has kept everyone - batsmen, bowler, and spectators - interested.

The fall-of-wickets column suggests an awkward batting surface. The truth is that the pitch has done Test cricket credit: it has consistently rewarded good bowling, and skillful batsmen have found the way to score runs. At the most, there has been the hint of uneven bounce, but hardly any treachery. Batsmen have managed to drive on the up, down the ground, cut and pull and defend comfortably, but at the same time, they haven't been able to take the runs for granted; they have had to be vigilant and resourceful. Cricket is at its most satisfying when both runs and wickets feel earned and the large crowds that have turned up on each day have been handsomely rewarded.

When Sachin Tendulkar found his top game yesterday, the ball hurried through the turf as if it had friends waiting beyond the ropes, but as has been the case throughout the match, the wicket-taking ball was lurking in the corner. Peter Siddle might have cost the MCG some serious gate money on the third day by finding Tendulkar's stumps in the dying moments yesterday, but he burst the match open dramatically.

Though the scorecard didn't do full justice to Australia's effort yesterday, each of their quick bowlers stood guilty of bowling at least one poor spell. How well did they make up for it today? Leave aside a poor spell, there was hardly a poor ball all morning. Rahul Dravid, who was fortunate to survive yesterday, received what must count as an overnight batsman's worst nightmare: the dream ball from the right-arm swing bowler, in the first over of the morning. Ben Hilfenhaus landed the ball on the middle stump on the perfect length, and it moved just enough to evade the bat and hit off stump. It was fitting that two special balls accounted for Test cricket's most prolific run-getters.

Perhaps it was fortuitous for Australia that Siddle, indifferent in the first spell, found a cause to rouse himself after shattering Dravid's stumps with a no-ball. His sense of grievance - though he had no one to blame but himself - became the rallying point for Australia's comeback and they managed to carry the intensity into the following day. It could be argued that India's lower middle order surrendered their wickets through tentative strokes but the truth was that Australia's quick men were relentless.

VVS Laxman was kept scoreless for 19 balls; Virat Kohli found some release against Nathan Lyon, but was given no space by the fast men; MS Dhoni fell to a familiar trap, driving at a fullish and swinging ball outside off stump. For India, the MCG has become the place for spectacular first-innings collapses, nothing more dramatic and sudden than the meltdown in 2003 when they slumped from 1 for 278 to 366 all out after Virender Sehwag had belted 195 before tea. In 2007, they lost 7 for 76 and the tally read 8 for 68 today.

Though the scorecard didn't do full justice to Australia's effort yesterday, each of their quick bowlers stood guilty of bowling at least one poor spell. How well did they make up for it today? Leave aside a poor spell, there was hardly a poor ball all morning

But unlike those two occasions, the bowlers have kept them in the contest in this match. They have learnt from mistakes in the first innings when they bowled a yard shorter, taking leg-before and bowled out of the equation, and while they beat the bat often enough, they quickly absorbed the lesson from Australia that it's the full length that often finds the edge. The home side's top order contributed with poor and indecisive strokes, but each of the first three dismissals was brought about by a ball that landed closer to the batsman.

And for the first time in many seasons, India forged an attack with no obvious weak links. After Umesh Yadav, who grows more impressive by the innings, and Zaheer Khan had delivered splendid opening spells, Ishant Sharma, unlike many times in the recent past, didn't serve as the release bowler. And R Ashwin, though not as threatening as the quick men, didn't serve up singles on demand. Even when Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey were mounting a stand, the ball beat the bat often enough. It is a cliché that a wicket is always a ball away, but all through today, it was always a tangible possibility.

Reverse-swing or not, Zaheer has mastered the art of taking wickets with the old ball, and like in the first innings, he delivered two wickets in the last session to keep this fantastic Test in the balance.

But expect this match to keep turning. Hussey, who has managed to taste the vagaries of fate over the course of three days - done in by an umpiring error in the first innings, survived an appeal that would gone against him had DRS been used, and benefited from a spilled catch at slip - has kept his own place and his team in contest with a performance that has typified his career.

That it was nearly fifty years ago that a 200-plus chase was achieved at the MCG, should point to a position of ascendancy for Australia. India have mounted their best chases in the last four years, and it was only a few Tests ago that South Africa casually chased down 250 after 23 wickets had fallen the previous day Cape Town. If you have the chance, be there at the MCG tomorrow.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 29, 2011, 14:18 GMT

    i thnk india vil cme backin d rmaing match......dnt thnk abt d prvs game plz thnk abt d future match.......all are wel xprncd plyrz in hme and away grnd.,...v cn encrge 4 our team....

  • gourab on December 29, 2011, 5:53 GMT

    last indian wicket has fallen less than 15 min ago. Good staff by Aussies. India once again need to think about their way of winning matches abroad. heavy scorers in flat pitch finding once again hard to go on for longer period. Well a few blazing shot in a hour may manage 40+ or 50+ innings to keep the average safe and wait for indian ground to make the average go up 55+................ha ha this guys are voted as player of all time eleven by poll........i wonder whether they understand the game or not..............

  • Kannan on December 29, 2011, 5:41 GMT

    The Indian bowlers were all over the place on the 4th day morning. Don't they warm up beforehand? How come they can't bowl stump to stump? Why can't Zaheer and Ishant bowl inswingers after all these years? Why was there no energy aamonst the bowlers? Yadav didn't even appeal properly for the Hussey LBW that was plumb! Have you seen Warne and Murali appealing? No wonder they get so many wickets! Why can't somebody tell Dhoni to keep a 3rd man and bowl with a 7-2 field? India must have given away close to a 100 runs in the 3rd man area in the Test! Winning a Test is about making it tough for the opposition to SCORE and that's the BASICS which any captain AND bowler should know. Indians play sloppily and hence invariably slip in tight situations. The Indian top order didn't innovate either! Standing outside the crease on a middlle stump guard for eg. The Indian tail showed no application in contrast to the Aussie tail in bowling and batting that was the difference in the match.

  • Kannan on December 29, 2011, 5:28 GMT

    There is an old saying in rural India pertaining to street dancers. It said " dancers who can't dance, end up blaming the street". This repeated talk of the pitch and the 4th and 5th day wickets is symptomatic of the blindspot which Indians have, when it comes to buckling under non-existent "pressure". It happened in the 1st as well as 2nd innings. All that the batsmen had to do, to settle in was leave the balls outside the offstump and play with a straight bat those that came in, until they settled in. A batsman has not settled in unless he has played 50 balls and got himself in. When there are wickets falling at the other end, one needs to grind and show grit to stay even more resolutely and not flash like Zaheer. It's a shame he does that after 10 years of cricket. No application. contd...

  • Chris on December 29, 2011, 4:39 GMT

    Double failure in Aussie conditions by Gambhir. Expect an injury to be revealed. Very surprised if he lasts 4 tests.

  • Surj on December 29, 2011, 4:34 GMT

    india's famed batting line-up is a big joke nowadays! Laxman looks like a mummy. This was the time their service was needed the most and invariably they fail collectively. This is not the first time it happened and neither will be the last. They need either Indian wickets or dibly-dobly bowlers who will bowl only straight balls and half-volleys. Their current best batsman Sharma is in the freezer.

  • Steve on December 29, 2011, 4:31 GMT

    It looks like the Indian team of once great players (on flat tracks) are about to be taught just how weak Indian TEST cricket is? Disappointing and spineless display from this second rate test team but a good showing from an up-and-coming Aussie side! Time for the 'greats' to collect their pensions I think and time for BCCI to get in step with world cricket? India have some serious rebuilding to do and all the BCCI money is getting in the way.......

  • Arshad on December 29, 2011, 4:22 GMT

    Mr Bal....... Perhaps your piece of writing is trying to make this as perfect test match!!! To me it looks like fimiliar Indian batting failure that we saw throughout the last English summer.

  • Neville on December 29, 2011, 3:32 GMT

    For me, the obvious PASSENGERs were G Gambhir and VVS Laxman; the PRETENDER was R Ashwin. I think it is time we brought in youth at No. 3 (Dravid's time is past us!) I wonder if we have the resources in our squad to tweak in time (on this tour) if we are to attempt recovery...

  • jase on December 29, 2011, 3:16 GMT

    Hey Dravidgood, I think you'll find that Dravid had little to do with the MCG pitch. Pretty much all Australian pitches have been result pitches in recent times (look at the series vs NZ), and as a fan of test cricket I can only hope other countries take a look at their pitches and do the same. Those tests in the subcontinent which have teams trading first innings of 500 are the ones killing tests, and killing bowlers. Not to mention inflating batting records in the process. I for one, much rather watch Tendulkar batting for a fluent 60 or 70 on this pitch, than hit 200 on a dead flat track where batsmen with half his skill can do the same.

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