Australia v India, 1st Test, Brisbane, 1st day December 4, 2003

Right decision, wrong execution

Zaheer Khan let his captain down with an awful start. Now, where have we seen that before?
© Getty Images

The score might tell you otherwise, but Sourav Ganguly's decision at the toss was the right one. At the press conference yesterday, Ganguly had talked about being brave, and had referred to Headingley last year, where India had been rewarded for the tough decision to bat first in forbidding conditions, leading to the belief that they may do likewise if they won the toss today. But this was a pitch that was universally acknowledged as more green than anything seen at the Gabba in recent years, and there was heavy cloud-cover all day. If there was ever a chance of the Indian quick bowlers, who rely more on swing than pace, putting it across the Australian batsmen, it lay in the conditions today.

It was a brave decision. Even as the captains were returning from the toss, the talk veered to a similar decision by Nasser Hussain at Gabba in the last Ashes opener. At the end of that day, Australia had battered their way to 364 for 1, with Matthew Hayden hammering 187. These Australians bat even more intimidatingly that they bowl, and while some might term Ganguly's decision as a soft option from a batsman-captain, it couldn't have been easy risking first-day punishment from Hayden on his home ground.

Unfortunately for Ganguly, he was as much defeated by his bowlers as he was by the ebullience of the Australian batsmen. Throughout the day, the conditions offered hope and assistance to the pace bowlers, and no batsman ever looked completely secure. Yet no bowler was consistent enough to make full use of it.

Zaheer Khan bowled a splendid second spell, in which he was unfortunate not to have more than one wicket - Steve Bucknor turned down lbw appeals against Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting that looked legitimate - but it is becoming increasingly apparent that he regards the new ball with a certain suspicion. He began with a wide down leg that ended up as four byes, followed up with the customary no-ball, and never acquired the rhythm that India needed from him in the opening hour. Ajit Agarkar, the only Indian fast bowler to have toured Australia before - while the abiding memory from that tour is his ducks, he had looked India's best bowler in 1999-2000 - bowled an excellent first over and didn't bowl a decent one again till his sixth, conceding 40 runs in between. Ashish Nehra occasionally generated some pace, but he looked the least likely to take a wicket.

Asked if the Indians had been studying the tapes from the last Ashes series to learn from the mistakes of Hussain's bowlers, Ganguly had replied impatiently that they didn't need to look at video-tapes to know what line and length to bowl. Everybody at this level knew the good areas, he said, but the challenge was to put the ball there. He was let down by his bowlers today.

The other decision for the team management this morning revolved around picking the opening batsmen and the spinner - and unfortunately, they chose unimaginatively. Akash Chopra has two fifties from his first two Tests, and Virender Sehwag a fine reputation. But Sadagoppan Ramesh has been the batsman of the tour so far, scoring runs in every innings. By all accounts, he has been less flashy, more inclined to play close to his body and a lot more in the V than we have been seen him do before. Dropping either Chopra or Sehwag might have seemed cruel, but there is a logic behind choosing form over record and reputation.

Australia have already batted themselves to a position of strength in conditions less than ideal for batting. Even though rain still hangs in the air, the Brisbane pitch has the reputation of getting more comfortable on the second day. India will sleep uneasily tonight, with the knowledge of a day wasted and fear of the day ahead.

Sambit Bal, editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.