Laxman puts India back in the contest
VVS Laxman finally got India's batting on this Australian tour off the ground, with an enthusiastic and entertaining century, and Rahul Dravid once again battled hard in dour fashion. Dravid spent time in the middle with Laxman but both fell in the dying moments of the second day, handing the initiative back to Australia. The much-needed Indian resistance spanned almost two sessions, but it was Australia who had won the first, pushing their first-innings score to 463 thanks mainly to an unbeaten 162 from Andrew Symonds.
Laxman in particular was in a perfect mood, punishing anything that was too straight or too full. His customary elegant wristy play ensured that even deliveries short of a good length were kept down, and the boundaries came all round the park. He did survive one close call for lbw early on against Lee, and was the beneficiary of some fielding largesse, but on a day like this, where he batted with panache against an attack that has dominated India's batsmen, these blips can be overlooked.
When India began their first innings, still very much up against it after Australia had scored 463 in less than four sessions, there was an unmistakable sense of déjà vu as a runless opening passage was followed by the wicket of Wasim Jaffer. Brett Lee pulled the perfect three-card trick, pushing Jaffer firmly onto the back foot with a couple of with a couple of pacy short deliveries before slipping in the perfect yorker - quicker than anything else - to nail the base of off stump.
There was just a chance that India would wobble once more, and when Dravid was caught at slip chasing a wide no-ball from Mitchell Johnson it appeared as though the Melbourne script was set to be replayed. But then things changed as Dravid began to find his feet, and move them positively, both when leaving the ball well alone and when driving through the off side.
The short-pitched attack continued for a time, but with Dravid and Laxman playing with soft hands and getting on top of the ball, the Australian bowlers were forced back into bowling a fuller length. This coincided with strokes being played as the bounce was true and gaps in the outfield plentiful with an attacking field being set. Both batsmen used the pace of the bowlers well, working the ball away for boundaries to get some momentum going.
The half-century of the partnership came up in only 57 balls, with Laxman dominating, and Dravid contributing just 10 runs. It was not long before Laxman brought up his own half-century, off just 43 balls, with a remarkable 40 of those runs coming in boundaries. Lee returned for another spell on the verge of tea, but could not break through and Laxman was getting a firm grip on proceedings at a ground where he has twice made big hundreds.
Laxman's approach meant that Dravid, who batted with such extreme caution and determination that he looked like he might burst into tears at any moment, could take the opportunity to dig deep. Laxman was timing the ball handsomely and his placement was excellent. In the second session Laxman scored 73 at a better than a run a ball, albeit with a let-off as Adam Gilchrist missed a tough chance down leg side - he also put down an easier catch on the off side straight after tea. At the same time Dravid, who took the occasional ironic cheer from the Sydney crowd when he ran a single after a spell of blocking or leaving the ball alone, ground his way to a half-century.
Just when Dravid allowed himself a smile he also committed a blunder, having an airy waft outside the off to a shortish ball from Johnson that landed in Matthew Hayden's midriff at comfortable catching height off the outside edge. All innings Dravid had fetched the ball from outside the off and driven, occasionally exposing himself to the slip catch in the process, but this was the one fatal mistake, and he cursed himself all the way back to the dressing-room, having fallen on 53 off 160 balls.
If the half-century milestone did for Dravid then a lapse in concentration ended Laxman's stay on 109 just two runs after the fall of the second wicket. Driving away from his body, without quite getting to the pitch of the ball, Laxman broadened Brad Hogg's perpetual grin, only finding Michael Hussey at short cover off a top-spinner. A relatively strong 1 for 183 had quickly changed to a vulnerable 3 for 185, with two new batsmen at the crease to negotiate the last half hour. But Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly managed well enough, taking India to the close on 3 for 216.
India were still 247 behind Australia's 463, but it was their strongest batting day of the tour yet. The bowlers, who have outshone their more fashionable counterparts so far, had some hard work of their own to do earlier in the day. Andrew Symonds' hulking figure was once again at the foreground, blotting out the light at the end of the tunnel, while Lee helped himself to a fourth Test half-century. Symonds, unbeaten on 162 when the Australian innings eventually ended, had put his team in a position of total control, something that hardly seemed likely at the same time on the first day.
Lee pushed along confidently from his overnight 31 to 59, and was unafraid to drive on the up, punching the ball through the off side to pick up boundaries. It was not until the 14th over of the second day when India finally struck through Kumble, who managed to get a ball to come back into Lee and drew a positive lbw decision from Steve Bucknor. India were relieved to have an umpiring call go their way after Symonds survived another close shave when Bucknor did not refer a tight stumping appeal, which could have gone either way, off Harbhajan Singh.
Johnson then added irritation value to some crucial runs, striking the ball as though he had been in the middle for a couple of hours. Compact and confident, Johnson played his shots, scoring quickly and not needing to be shielded by Symonds, who was by this time nearing the 150-mark. Johnson was worth 28 runs in a partnership of 40 that came on the back of stands of 175 and 143. It was Kumble who struck again, this time benefiting from an ambitious stroke as Johnson's attempted heave over midwicket failed to clear Ganguly in the deep. Kumble wrapped the innings up soon after with Stuart Clark, the No. 11, playing true to his position and failing to score, trapped in front.
Anand Vasu is an associate editor at Cricinfo