Summer of substance
Batting frailties have afflicted both sides this week but if the debutant Brad Hodge was carrying nerves they disappeared with his first-ball quick single. While the West Indies top order has flapped like Bellerive Oval flags, a trait some of Australia's middle matched today, Hodge stepped into Test cricket like it was corner store and picked up an assured half-century.
Australian batting debuts have been restricted during the past decade as state prospects with potential grew into world-class performers, so the inclusion of two in as many Tests has given local fans something new to inspect. Both Michael Hussey, whose shaky Brisbane opening was replaced with a composed 137, and Hodge impressed the hardest markers over the past two days to show they had been worth the lengthy wait.
After spending seasons on the on-call lists and numerous tours as a drinks runner, Hodge strode out at No.5 and proved his pre-match comments that he deserved his spot. He moved purposefully, struck nine powerful boundaries and his only moments of confusion were the run-out with Andrew Symonds and the half-push forward that gave up his wicket to Corey Collymore. Leaving with 60, Hodge may arrive in Adelaide for the third Test as the side's preferred option for No.4 instead of Michael Clarke.
Hussey and Hodge have settled quickly while Clarke, a player correctly picked on predictions of wonder rather than summers of substance, is speeding out of favour as he fails to shelve the big shots. Clarke's attitude has been similar to the mood of his opponents, who have been unwilling to hold ground and would prefer to slash out of their binds, and he is in serious danger of following Simon Katich out of the side.
With Andrew Symonds also missing out and Justin Langer eyeing a return for next week's third Test, a batting line-up that was previously as solid as grandstand pillars has become interchangeable Lego. Hodge will stay and if Hussey is given a place in the middle order - he says he will happily bat anywhere - then Clarke's run as the game's brightest prospect will probably end.
Australia's batting ledger was 9 for 150 today, including failures for Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist, and they earned a 257-run lead, but losing six wickets in the first session is never in their plans no matter how spirited the bowling was from Collymore, Edwards, Bravo and Powell. West Indies currently crave the home side's lower-order productivity and must wish for their dilemmas as none of their batsmen could claim to be in form.
Diving for 149 in the first innings, they slipped again to be 4 for 82 after a mixture of wild shots and probing from Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee ruined their earlier bowling gains. Australia's options are varied but the tourists have only Wavell Hinds and Dwayne Smith, who was brilliant as a substitute fielder with a run out and two catches, in reserve.
However, Brian Lara showed his most precise footwork of his two months in Australia and became the game's second greatest Test run-scorer after passing Steve Waugh's 10,927. Lara produced some crisp boundaries and survived a tricky period late in the day as the weather varied from rain to sunshine to bad light, and he is again the main barrier to Australia retaining the Frank Worrell Trophy. The local players are wary of his potential to snap his poor form but with a buffer of 175 and two days left they will probably spend more time thinking about the make-up of their batting order.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo