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Peter English in Melbourne
December 26, 2007
Groups of Australians spent the afternoon wondering whether they were being unpatriotic for smiling when India started running through the home team. For the first session those local supporters who demand nothing but dominance by Ricky Ponting's men were satisfied with the direction of the game. Their disgruntlement when it changed in the second session was offset by the joy felt - and heard - at the ground by cricket supporters who are desperate to see Australia challenged. After the first day there is hope this series might be the fair fight fans have been craving since the 2005 Ashes.
Australia's Test pattern seemed to be continuing when Matthew Hayden and Phil Jaques reached 135 in front of the ecstatic sardines in Bay 13. Was it too early to call the series? Sri Lanka were suffocated after giving up gigantic first-innings totals in November and India looked set to suffer the same problem.
Fortunately Anil Kumble arrived after lunch with a couple of precise wrong'uns and Australia quickly lost 3 for 30. For any other team it would not qualify as a collapse, but it does for a side that has such a celebrated order. A stadium that was two-thirds full was quickly taking extra notice. Australia, who have been so dominant in their 14-match winning streak, were experiencing a slice of pressure on a tricky surface and optimistic locals started smirking behind their hands.
The players talk about their love of being tested and competing under the toughest conditions. Since England arrived in 2006 the scenario has occurred infrequently and usually only in one-day internationals. Nothing is better than watching high-quality players when they are being eyeballed.
Having lost three top-order wickets in a session, Australia's batsmen started to behave differently. Michael Clarke, who left slashing at a wide delivery, was particularly nervy when he arrived in the unusual situation, looking for a single that wasn't there and being sent back by Hayden, who was immune from the problems while producing a steadying 124. Hayden would later speak in depth about the difficulty of the pitch, but external stresses also contributed to his team-mates' discomfort.
Andrew Symonds stepped out, started flaying from the first ball, which he pulled into his foot, and never gained composure. His game is built on aggression, but tension had spread through the order and he was trying unsuccessfully to shake it off. The policy also didn't work for Adam Gilchrist, who batted on the opening day of a Test for the first time in more than a year.
Indians in the stands danced again after Gilchrist, who tried to thrash a Kumble offering that was too far outside off stump for the shot, was caught by Sachin Tendulkar. Gilchrist's method is similar to Symonds' and no punishment will be invoked, but the dismissal added to a strangely casual performance from players who have grown used to pummeling.
The visitors are being supported by thousands at the MCG, but the noise made during the dismissals came from more than those whose affinity is with India. Some of the locals who had wished for wickets early in the day might have started squirming as the departures refused to stop, but the crowd remained glued to the game.
Australia are not in trouble - India's batting order is under-prepared and 9 for 337 will never be handed back - but the excitement will hang around the MCG. People will walk to the ground on day two not knowing what will happen. A contest is here and it's exciting.
Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge
Plays of the day from the tri-series match between Zimbabwe and South Africa