'The best bowling attack I've played with' - Sehwag
At the end of the second day, R Ashwin, the India offspinner, set his bowling colleagues a lofty ambition. He spoke about the readiness of the Indian attack and how they would try to match the eagerness England's bowlers showed during the Ashes in Australia last season. "We saw in the Ashes the England team seemed, through the series, as though they wanted the ball in hand," Ashwin said. "That's the kind of impression a good bowling attack can pose upon an opponent. It's all about readiness and the belief that wickets will keep coming. If a couple of us can get five-wicket hauls early in the series then obviously you will see the effects on our team as well."
It is a good aspiration to have: to want to be constantly enthusiastic to bowl and take wickets. However, the Indian attack, hurt by injuries and lack of consistency over the past year, has had questions asked of the very durability Ashwin asked for. It seemed certain that a time would arrive during this tour when the bowlers would be asked to measure up to Ashwin's aspiration. That it would arrive a little over two hours of play after his statements was slightly unexpected. The Indian batting had collapsed by lunch on the third day, losing eight wickets for 68, and India needed something special from their bowlers. By the end of the day, Ashwin & Co. had the approval of Virender Sehwag. He said: "This is the best Indian bowling attack I have played with."
That's a tall claim, but perhaps Sehwag has seen something. The most striking aspect of this attack - albeit on the evidence of a small sample - has been that they have not been overly reliant on Zaheer Khan. Yes, Zaheer's experience has counted in his final spells on the first and third days, but Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav have been ready, have been quick, and have improved as the game has progressed.
Zaheer's importance is not always a tangible quantity of course; it doesn't always show in five-fors but only in the slump when he is missing. But you get the sense there is something to Yadav and Ishant's games. Usually, when India win Tests abroad - and this is by no means won - there is a sense of happenstance to the composition of the attack. There is a deliberateness about this set of bowlers. Yadav is young, fit and quick, and was punted on at the right time. Ishant has been around for a while, and while he may have gambled by not going for ankle surgery, he has not held anything back in this Test. Unlucky to have not picked up a wicket in the first innings, he bowled consistently in the late 140s in his first spell in the second, and once crossed 152kph.
It is rare for all three quicks of an Indian attack to look like they could take wickets in all of their spells. India desperately needed just that after the collapse in the morning. Helped in part by injudicious shot-making from the Australia batsmen, Yadav burst through the top order, and Zaheer and Ishant were not far behind. The trio showed they had learned from their first-innings mistake of bowling too short, and also from watching how the Australia quicks exploited the conditions.
Then there is Ashwin, who has brought freshness to the spin department. He has not over-reached on a pitch that is not helping spinners, but he hasn't been overly defensive either. He may have been guilty of bowling the odd short ball, but his opposition have acknowledged that he has made it difficult for them through changes of pace, angle and trajectory, and of course the carrom ball against the tail. Ricky Ponting said there was a lot Nathan Lyon, Australia's offspinner, could learn from Ashwin. The way Ashwin bowled over after over, going at well under three an over, allowed the quicks to keep coming back fresh.
The control Ashwin exerted meant Australia had not run away to a big lead by the time Zaheer came back for a final spell on the third day. On cue, he produced two wickets, reversing one away from Ponting, and then dismissing Brad Haddin from around the stumps. Ashwin then showed his effectiveness against the tail, and but for a drop off his bowling India might have been in an even better position by stumps. Zaheer, though, bowled only a four-over spell, feeling his hamstring during the fourth, walking off immediately, and then coming back to the field but not bowling. That was a reminder for Indians fans not to get too far ahead of themselves.
This is a long Australian summer, and anything could happen when it comes to the bowlers' fitness. One of the three fast bowlers might even need to be rested from a Test. In fact the MCG Test itself still has some way to go, but whatever happens here the bowlers can say they have done their job. Well, almost. There are still two wickets to get on the fourth morning.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo