Sehwag and Tendulkar prop up India
Close India 284 for 3 (Tendulkar 73*, Laxman 29*) v Australia
Jason Gillespie toiled hard but had only two wickets to show for it
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The young apprentices served up a fine entrée in the final Test between India and Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground, and then the modern masters got down to the task of preparing a substantial main course. As at Melbourne, Akash Chopra and Virender Sehwag set India up nicely with a century opening partnership. But the middle order did not squander the platform they had been gifted, and India finished the first day on 284 for 3. Sachin Tendulkar, the subject of much unseemly media speculation, constructed partnerships of 66 with Rahul Dravid and an unbeaten 90 with VVS Laxman on his way to an ominous 73 not out.
The day began fittingly for a man who relishes the uphill battle. Steve Waugh lost the toss and watched the Indian openers tot up 98 runs before lunch. They spluttered to a start rather than roared to one. On a good bouncy pitch, Chopra and Sehwag began tentatively, playing and missing, prodding and poking, unsure of quite how to handle the swing and seam movement that Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie generated. Gillespie, back from injury, had trouble with his line, frequently bowling wide of the off stump, or on the batsman's legs. Lee was quicker and more accurate, and any early breakthrough appeared likely to come from him.
Then, in the space of two heartbreaking overs from Lee - heartbreaking for the bowler - the momentum shifted. First, Chopra edged a beautiful away-swinger and was caught behind - off a no-ball. The next ball was legitimate, and Chopra edged again, straight to Simon Katich at gully - Katich fumbled, and dropped it.
Sehwag added sodium chloride to Lee's lesions a couple of overs later, and again, a no-ball started it. Lee overstepped and dropped one wide outside off, Sehwag slashed over backward point for six. Lee overcompensated, drifted down leg, Sehwag clipped him to fine leg for four. Lee got his line right in the next ball, but not his length, as Sehwag punched a fuller ball in the corridor to the cover boundary. Singles followed, and 18 came off that over. Lee had been hit out of the attack.
Chopra found his groove as the game went on, as his shot selection grew more assured, and fortune gave way to fortitude. Sehwag, meanwhile, opened up as the ball grew older. His aggression bordered mostly on the right side of recklessness; he put away most loose balls that came his way, but didn't try any wild strokes against the good balls. When he did flash, he flashed hard.
Just when Sehwag seemed set for another big innings, he edged a good-length ball from Gillespie after lunch, and was caught behind for 72 (123 for 1). Shortly after that, Lee earned a fine wicket. First, he unleashed a bouncer at Chopra, which Chopra left alone. Then came the yorker, which Chopra dug out superbly. Then, the faster inswinging yorker, which left Chopra clueless as it crashed into his stumps (128 for 2). Chopra had made 45 - once again, the openers had given India a good start. What would Rahul Dravid and Tendulkar make of it?
Tendulkar, an irresistable force for so much of his career, was an immovable object. He played a solid and compact innings, with few expansive attempts to drive, and no expensive uppish slashes. He got his boundaries with the minimum of risk - as when he opened his account off a slightly underpitched yorker from Lee, meeting it nonchalantly with the full face of his blade, in a perfectly timed push to the long-on boundary.
Dravid, at the other end, was his usual unyielding self, immaculate in his responses to every question thrown at him - from balance to footwork to every microscopic detail of technique. He was serene yet busy, solid yet fluid, and he outscored Tendulkar during their partnership of 66. He was clinical against loose bowling, much of which came, during his stay at the crease, from Stuart MacGill.
Dravid cut and on-drove MacGill for fours in the first over after tea, then flicked and off-drove him for two more boundaries in his next over, and then chose the otherwise controlled Nathan Bracken for punishment, square-cutting him ferociously when he pitched short and slightly wide. But as in the first innings at Melbourne, he was out against the run of play, caught on his crease by an incutter from Gillespie for 38. At 194 for 3, India were on the same slippery slope as towards the end of the first day in the last Test.
But Tendulkar and Laxman, promoted in the batting order above Sourav Ganguly, kept climbing. Tendulkar opened out as he grew more comfortable, using his wrists to work balls on off and further inside to the leg side, rocking back to punch or pull anything short. He did not allow the comfort with which he was playing to relax him, and played no loose strokes - though MacGill did fox him a couple of times, inducing edges that did not go to hand.
Laxman's last innings at the SCG was the gorgeous 167 in 1999-00, when he had nothing to lose. Today, he gave nothing away, as he settled in for the long haul. He found occasion to play his staple shots, the wristy flick to midwicket and the inside-out cover-drive, but was more a gatherer than the hunter he had been in his last Test here.
In the previous Test, India's middle order had made a meal of the start they had been given. But these men had worked too hard and dreamed too long of victory in Australia, and they batted as if they would not let anything come in the way of their just desserts.
Waugh, no doubt, had other plans up his sleeves. After all, this was his party.