Sublime Symonds puts Australia back on top
Australia took the long and tough route getting there but they posted a strong 376 by the end of an intriguing and curious day's play in Sydney. India, following the pattern set in the first Test for a time, out-did themselves with the ball, RP Singh leading and Harbhajan Singh backing things up to knock the stuffing out of the Australian top order. If India had unlikely heroes then Australia had Andrew Symonds and Brad Hogg, who turned the game around on its head in a strong partnership.
Things did not begin well for India with Ricky Ponting winning the toss and choosing to bat. Zaheer Khan failed a fitness Test and missed the game with a bruised heel, leaving RP to lead the attack and Ishant Sharma with plenty of work to do. The one thing in India's favour was an unusually responsive SCG pitch - there was even bounce and significant turn for a first-day pitch and RP and Harbhajan cashed in.
Phil Jaques, usually the first in queue when there's a chance to cash in, chased a wide one and was caught behind, but this only brought a swaggering Ponting to the crease early. When Matthew Hayden's broad blade was beaten by a ball that bounced more than anticipated and moved away, the edge safely swallowed by Sachin Tendulkar at first slip, it really was a happy new year for the Indians.
Ponting and Michael Hussey restored normalcy with a calming partnership, not without its share of turned down appeals and close shaves, and Australia seemed back on track. Ponting was ominously businesslike playing the pull on a true pitch and Hussey chipped, chopped and charged along. The third-wicket partnership built to 92 before India came roaring back, with a little help from Mark Benson.
Almost compensating for the dismissals he had failed to give earlier Benson handed Harbhajan a favourable lbw verdict when the ball had come off a thick inside edge. Hussey then opened the face of his bat a bit too much to RP and Tendulkar was in business again, taking a good catch at first slip.
Michael Clarke, considered one of the better players of spin around, made a serious blunder, proffering pad to a full Harbhajan ball that would have crashed into the stumps and Adam Gilchrist gave the Tendulkar-RP combination another scalp as India celebrated Australia's crumbling to 6 for 134.
But the smiles were wiped firmly off the faces of the Indians by Symonds and Hogg, who refused to be cowed down by the scoreboard and instead launched a buccaneering counter-attack. Hogg was the surprise package and, three first-class hundreds notwithstanding, his honest hitting through and over the infield left India's bowlers a bit dazed.
If the Indians think the rub of the green did not go their way they would not be far off, with swirling catches eluding flat-footed fielders and thick edges escaping the hearing of the umpires as a strong Wednesday crowd got behind Symonds and Hogg and cheered the revival.
Symonds was confident all along, but as the only recognised batsmen had to buckle down and not play the big shots that he so likes. Hogg had no such obligations and repeatedly went after the bowlers, easily outscoring Symonds for a time. The tea break came and went, and the two brought up the 100 of the seventh-wicket partnership in good time, using up only 115 balls to do so.
The relentless march continued and the softening of the ball took the edge off RP's exuberant bowling as Hogg and Symonds brought up half-centuries. Even with the situation being almost dire for the Australians the runs came at a rollicking pace, and both batsmen appeared dead set for centuries when India eked out their next breakthrough.
The Symonds-Hogg partnership had swollen to 173, the Australian total gone past 300, before Kumble got his name on the scoreboard. Hogg played a forcing shot off the back foot and was undone by a lack of turn, edging a sharp catch to Rahul Dravid at slip. Hogg's 79 had come off only 102 balls, and Stuart MacGill must be wondering if a comeback is on the cards at all, as Australia had once again reached a position of great strength despite faltering early.
Symonds had no Hogg-like hiccups in bringing up his century and the manner in which he batted belied the fact that this was only his second three-figure score in the longest version of the game. The big shots were back in action in the second half of his innings, and Symonds handled Harbhajan with aplomb, coming down the pitch and lifting the ball effortlessly over the ropes. If he favoured midwicket for the biggest hits Symonds exploited the region behind square on the off side with extreme precision, forcing his cut shots, both powerful and delicate, time and again.
When Hogg gave way to Brett Lee the Indians were again with a chance of wrapping the innings up, but just as the Australians seemed a touch complacent to begin this day, the visitors seemed over-eager to wrap it up in the second half. The best laid plans did not come off, the half chances did not go their way and before you knew it another partnership had built.
Symonds was as solid as Lee was streaky, and you can hardly blame the big allrounder for the occasions on which umpires refused to give him out. At the end of the day Symonds was unconquered, on 137, and Australia had reached 7 for 376. Lee had contributed 31 of the unbeaten 69-run eighth wicket stand, and India, despite their bowlers punching well above their weight, were up against it.
On this pitch 350 could have been a handful, and now Australia seem certain to post in excess of 400. It will then be over to the Indian batsmen, who failed to even score 200 in either innings in the first Test, to show that reputations and self-belief count for something, as Symonds so strongly had.
Anand Vasu is an associate editor at Cricinfo