Clark's spark fires Australia
In the lead-up to Boxing Day Australia were certain they had a much more mature attack than the last time India visited for Tests and within two days at the MCG Stuart Clark and Brett Lee proved that confidence was justified. Clark was miserly and dangerous, cancelling an entertaining act from Sachin Tendulkar and finishing the day with 4 for 28, while Lee grabbed 4 for 46 and became the sixth Australian to collect 250 Test wickets.
At stumps Australia had reached 0 for 32 in their second innings with Matthew Hayden on 22 and Phil Jaques on 10 after India were dismissed for 196 late in the day. India's innings finished with a record-equalling moment when Adam Gilchrist clutched a caught-behind off Lee to remove Zaheer Khan for 11 and in doing so drew level with Ian Healy's Australian wicketkeeping mark of 395 Test dismissals.
In Lee's previous over he himself had achieved a milestone by joining his former attack-mates Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie in securing his 250th victim. That too came with a catch by Gilchrist, albeit in slightly unusual circumstances. The Australians appealed loudly against Anil Kumble, certain they had their man, and Billy Bowden initially turned it down only to change his mind after chatting to his square-leg colleague Mark Benson.
Kumble was on 27 and with Sourav Ganguly (43) had offered some resistance following Clark's efforts to run through the middle order. But Ganguly gave Brad Hogg another moment to remember - 11 years ago he was Hogg's first Test victim - when he was bowled by a quicker, flatter ball that was Hogg's first wicket after four years out of the Test team. A skied catch from Harbhajan Singh left Hogg with 2 for 82, a far more flattering result than if Tendulkar had stuck around to keep flaying him to the boundary.
Fortunately for Hogg, Clark provided the major point of difference compared to the Australian attack of 2003-04. In that series Australia were missing Warne, who was on his drugs ban, and McGrath, who had an ankle injury, and their unsettled assortment of replacement bowlers could not dismiss India for less than 350 in a first innings.
That could have been the case again in Melbourne as Tendulkar looked immovable, forcing and finessing his way to 62. But the defining moment of the innings came ten minutes before tea when Clark used his height to add some extra bounce outside off stump and Tendulkar inside-edged onto his stumps trying to punch through the off side. It was almost a carbon copy of Tendulkar's dismissal in last week's warm-up match when the 200-centimetre Victorian Allan Wise provoked the same mistake.
But while rain stopped India's recovery at the Junction Oval the bright and sunny Melbourne conditions provided no such Test respite. Clark followed Tendulkar's dismissal with Yuvraj Singh, who was caught behind from the last ball before tea for 0, and two balls after the break he added MS Dhoni to his collection. Dhoni was still getting used to the conditions when he misread the line as Clark jagged one back in towards him and trapped him lbw.
Clark's weapon was his subtle variety - one delivery would bounce and edge fractionally away from the bat and the next would nip back and stay slightly lower. That uncertainty led to Rahul Dravid being judged lbw for a painfully slow 5, but it was the loss of Tendulkar that altered the match.
While the MCG crowd - there were nearly 25,000 fewer spectators than the first day - might have been lulled into slumber by Dravid they were jolted awake by Tendulkar. He looked supremely confident and was especially keen to dominate Hogg. The first Hogg ball Tendulkar faced was slog-swept from outside off stump high over midwicket for four and the assault continued, delighting not only the India fans but the majority of the Melbourne spectators, who knew their chances of ever seeing Tendulkar in another Test were slim.
He picked 15 off one over when he again slapped Hogg from outside off stump to midwicket for four, then launched a six over long-on from the next delivery and followed two balls later with an ultra-fine paddled sweep that also went for four. That brought up Tendulkar's half-century, a 57-ball effort that quickened the tempo after Dravid's 66-ball stay before lunch.
Tendulkar generally handled the fast bowlers well and after taking a 146kph short delivery from Lee on the chest, followed with a boundary punched through cover. It was a confident way for Tendulkar to end what had been a short and fiery over but his partner at the time, VVS Laxman, did not handle the same situation quite as well.
Lee angled a short one in towards Laxman, who tried to evade it by crouching and rocking back but the ball followed him and failed to rise as high as he expected. Laxman (26) fended high, was knocked off his feet, and Ricky Ponting ran straight in from second slip, finishing up sprawled at full length as he clutched the chance. Lee sustained his speed and bounce through most of the day - Harbhajan can attest to that after one thudded painfully into his chest - and thoroughly deserved his four victims. Mitchell Johnson was unfortunate to go wicketless after he had Dravid caught at first slip off a no-ball and dropped at gully by a diving Jaques.
Rotating the strike was not a priority for India's new opening pair. Dravid faced every ball in Johnson's initial seven-over spell and his partner Wasim Jaffer did the same for Lee until he was caught behind for 4 and replaced in the occupying of the Great Southern Stand end by Laxman. India's top-order wobbles came after Australia's lower order also struggled, although Johnson and Clark added a handy 31 for the last wicket. When Clark departed for 21 in the third over of the day Australia had reached 337 and with India still trailing by 179 the hosts would no doubt be happy to post another 337 on day three.
Brydon Coverdale is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo