Australia v India, 1st Test, MCG, 4th day December 29, 2011

India's batting woes abroad continue

The fact that India were rolled over twice by Australia's second-choice pace attack suggests the failures in England were not an aberration but confirmation of a trend

For the 71 minutes that Sachin Tendulkar was at the crease this afternoon it felt like India had gone back to the dark ages: the master on a plain of his own, and the rest doing poor impersonations of Test batsmen. Australia looked like they were bowling with their great men again. The ball was wobbling a bit in the air, jagging off the seam, and the wicketkeeper was gathering most deliveries with his gloves pointing towards the sky. It felt very 1999, or 1992.

And then it got even worse for India. Tendulkar attempted a cover drive and sliced the ball to gully. Including their first-innings collapse, India had lost 14 wickets for 132 runs. They were up against an Australian attack with a combined match experience of 53 Tests and a total wicket-tally of less than 200. One of their new-ball bowlers was playing his third Test, his partner was coming back from injury, and two of the three fast bowlers might not have been playing the Test had Ryan Harris and Pat Cummins been available for selection.

So then, there was the truth. The world's most prolific, most experienced and most feted batting line-up had been rolled over twice by Australia's second-choice pace attack. They may not be second-choice bowlers for much longer, though, for they were marvellous. Only the sight of the tailenders got them to aim at the throat; otherwise, their devotion to the fundamentals of bowling was magnificently steadfast.

Throughout the Test, they kept their pace up and bowled excellent lines, but the most remarkable aspect of their bowling was the length they maintained. They had heeded the advice of their bowling coach Craig McDermott - who, incredible as it may sound, bowled to Tendulkar in 1992 - to keep the ball up.

It is one of the simplest principles of quick bowling. The full ball creates the opportunity for three of the most common forms of dismissal: caught, bowled and leg before. The word hostility is attached to the short ball but, though they bowled full, there was no let up in aggression from the Australia bowlers in this Test. It was just that they targeted the stumps more than the body. It resonated in the scorecard: India batsmen were bowled seven times, and, if you include the time he was bowled off a Peter Siddle no-ball, Rahul Dravid alone was bowled three times.

James Pattinson was named Man of the Match but it must have been a marginal selection: there was not a lot to choose between all three. Ben Hilfenhaus got seven wickets, as many as he had managed the whole summer last year, and Siddle and Pattinson got six each. Hilfenhaus has returned with an extra yard of pace, and his swing intact. Pattinson has it all: pace, swing and seam. But it is Siddle who looks the most improved bowler.

As in the case of England's Stuart Broad, Siddle is no longer the enforcer charged with bowling the heavy ball. His menace now comes from bowling full and fast, and he has added a touch of swing to his bowling. Tendulkar looked the best batsman in the match and Siddle dismissed him in both innings, once shaping the ball in and once moving it out. In both cases Tendulkar had been drawn in to the drive by the length.

Both teams came in to this series facing questions. Though they won, Australia have not found all the answers. Their top order remains a worry. Shaun Marsh failed twice, while Michael Clarke and David Warner had a start each but failed to press on. Michael Hussey, though, found his feet again, when it was most direly needed. The biggest positive was the sight of a familiar man steadying both innings. Ricky Ponting is unlikely to recapture the majesty of his youth, but in a bowlers' Test his half-centuries could easily have won him the Man-of-the-Match award. He can now go through the rest of the series without being hounded by calls for his head.

At the start of the Test, the big questions facing India pertained to their bowlers. There were fitness concerns about Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma, and Umesh Yadav and R Aswhin were both inexperienced. As they have done many times in the past - the summer's England tour was an exception - the bowlers exceeded expectations. However, alarmingly, it seems the poor batting performance in England was hardly an aberration.

In fact, it was merely confirmation of a pattern. Since they posted 364 in challenging conditions in Cape Town in the first Test of the year, only once have India managed to go past 300 in 16 innings away from home - and that includes six innings against West Indies. Neither of their openers has scored a hundred this year - in Gautam Gambhir's case the drought stretches back two years. Only two of their batsmen have managed to score a hundred away from home and only Dravid has managed more than one.

Some of the weaknesses in the Indian batting were glaringly apparent in Melbourne. Gambhir poked at balls he should have comfortably left alone and his long run of failures must now count as a serious worry. His uncertainty outside the off stump has always been noticeable, but the best feature of his game, his mental strength, seems to have deserted him. He now deals with the new ball with jabs and prods, and while he may get away with a few on low pitches in India, in Australia the edges are certain to carry to the cordon.

There is nothing unusual about Virender Sehwag collaborating in his own dismissals, and he is certain to go flashing at the first hint of width in Sydney. But that he averages 29.53 this year, and came in to this series with scores of 13, 11, 0, 0, 8 and 33 in away matches points to a batsman without the security of runs. His 67 in the first innings here featured some blazing shots, but also two clear chances and a near miss.

It has been three years since Sourav Ganguly vacated the No. 6 spot amid clamour for young blood, but that position is far from taken. Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina have both been tried and abandoned, and Virat Kohli finds himself facing the heat now. He was unsettled by the short ball in the West Indies, and found his defensive technique exposed in the both the innings at the MCG. He is likely to keep his place for the next Test, but only just.

For the first time since 1977, India started this tour with genuine prospects of winning their first-ever Test series in Australia. The fourth day began with the rare opportunity of starting an away series with a win. In the first session, they enacted a familiar routine by failing to knock over the tailenders. The last two Australian wickets extended the target by 74 runs to ensure India began the chase as underdogs. But the most damning fact of the day was that with 30 runs, Ashwin was the second-highest scorer for India in their second innings.

From here it would take a remarkable batting turnaround for India to keep the series alive. The New Year could not come any sooner.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

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