Vulnerable Aussies left with much to do
Two days into their first Test in Bangladesh, Australia finally stirred, though - happily for the neutral - nobody knows yet whether it has come too late or just in time. Shane Warne, wicketless in Bangladesh (is this better or worse than stacking up cheap wickets against them?) came good late in the day with a testing spell. Brett Lee, despite smiling his way through some supremely intense cricket over the last year, finally began to snarl - and who would have imagined Bangladesh would be the team to bring out the mongrel in him? Stuart MacGill had already raised his game, though given his eternal dilemma, he would have done so playing backyard cricket. But above all, it was the reawakening of Adam Gilchrist that gave Australia their get-out clause.
Gilchrist's troubles of late are well-chronicled; no hundreds in his past 25 Test innings, a fast-dipping average and at 34, little time remaining to arrest his decline. Maybe he just needed a situation to revive his competitive instincts and at 6 for 93, humiliation imminent, he probably got it. Even so, he went about much of his business as if acutely aware of his plight and that of his team's. He began uncertainly and spent much of the morning in solemn contemplation with Jason Gillespie. Pulls and cuts were banished as he chose to play mostly straight and mostly very late. Something in his memory bank clicked during lunch, something that told him he was once - and might still be - the master of precisely these moments. The blitz thereafter was briefly ominous.
He has led too many awesome counterattacks in his career for us to start assessing the worth of this latest effort, but that it was his slowest Test century and constructed in such an alien manner is significant. If nothing else, it disproves - like Inzamam-ul-Haq's Multan century against Bangladesh in 2003 - the pedantic axiom that hundreds are special only if made against great attacks.
The bowlers made up some more ground later in the day but that Multan Test keeps popping up as a handy reference. In that match too Bangladesh took a first-innings lead of over 100 runs, one of only three occasions (including this Test) they have done so. A 176-run lead against Zimbabwe led to their only Test win, a 106-run lead against Pakistan led to their nearest miss against an established opponent. So where does a 158-run lead against Australia lead them to?
The Multan Test was part of a series in which Bangladesh produced their most assertive Test performances since admission; Pakistan were pushed in all three Tests. Six of the side who fell short by one wicket are still here and for Bangladesh's sake, you hope that they are able to take something from that loss and use it here. The signs weren't promising today as they initially allowed Gilchrist to farm the strike and score some handy runs, and when their turn came to bat, they seemed unsure of what to do in the position they now found themselves. The captain didn't set the shiniest example; having not seen any pressing need to prevent Gilchrist from stealing last-ball-of-the-over singles earlier in the day, he saw no need to break into a sweat attempting a single later on. The cost of both errors may yet come back to bite him.
Mohammad Rafique, at least, has recognised the parallels with Multan. He took 18 wickets in that series and but for a decision here or there, he would have won Bangladesh the Test. Left-arm spinners are a rare bunch anyhow; in ODIs it seems only specialist batsmen can be left-arm orthodox and that too, part-time. Very few admit to being specialists, which is why Rafique's successes have been so refreshing.
Enamul Haque jnr's flight may attract purists but it can - and did - also attract Gilchrist's instincts here, post-lunch in particular when he was lofted for several sixes. Rafique has the flatter trajectory, but he is also the cannier, as befits his vast experience, and much the more accurate. Neither Gilchrist, nor any other Australian batsmen, could get on top of him, and though his five-wicket haul is an achievement in itself, the real work awaits him in Australia's second innings.
Whatever has happened by then, this Test will only bolster claims that Ricky Ponting's time in charge of Australia has been, charitably, an unusual one. He has become arguably the best batsman in the world but his captaincy has been questioned which, for an Australian captain since Allan Border's early years, is rare. There has been success, most notably a thoroughly admirable whitewash of South Africa in South Africa and a memorable series win in Sri Lanka. But on his watch, spectacular and successful assaults have been launched at Australian dominance: the Ashes have been lost, South Africa landed that punch at Johannesburg, Bangladesh rolled them over at Cardiff.
Gideon Haigh has noted that the "currency of [Ponting's] captaincy is runs, the principal means by which he stamps his authority on his team." His captaincy, he wrote after the Ashes, was "depressingly stereotyped in his thinking." Certainly, he is different from a Border, Taylor or Waugh and to watch Australia in the field in this match, with no slips posted as Bangladesh began their second innings, justified Haigh's assertion that Ponting is a tentative captain, "trying to make sure that nothing went wrong, rather than gambling that something would go right."
Mind you, he does still lead a damn good team, though maybe not as glittering as those of recent vintage. But you suspect he may have to gamble on something going right for him over the next couple of days to prevent what would be the biggest wrong of his career.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo