A stunning contrast
Zaheer Khan: from despondent to devastating
Sixteen overs between the showers today showed what could have been possible yesterday, and if India go on to lose the match - they will have to bat out of their skins tomorrow to stay in the hunt - they will know where they lost it. Only two bowlers were used today, and they were as magnificent as they were awful yesterday. To put the picture in perspective, two persons who were part of the 1981 Melbourne Test, which India won sensationally by bundling out Australia for 83 in the fourth innings, reckoned that today's performance by Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar came quite close to the heroics of that day. You don't argue with Sunil Gavaskar and Greg Chappell.
The conditions were perhaps a touch more helpful today - it remained overcast all day and India had the benefit of a dry ball - but the difference was palpably in the length. Zaheer, who had appeared despondent this morning while strolling around the boundary rope while the players waited for the rains to subside, refusing to offer anything more than a vigorous shake of the head as an explanation for the first-day showing, struck the right length from his very first over and never slackened.
Justin Langer, more than a hundred runs behind him, was beaten twice in the first over, and only two runs were scored off the first four as Agarkar, always a gamble for a captain, kept Damien Martyn quiet at the other end. Langer hit a splendid boundary off Agarkar a couple of overs later, but it was clear from an expansive off-drive that he mistimed to mid-on, that by choking the runs, the Indian bowlers were beginning to weigh down on the Australian batsmen. If Langer was unhappy about the lbw decision against him, the replay would have satisfied him. It wasn't as plumb as a leg-before shout he survived yesterday, but the ball would have taken the leg, if not leg and middle.
Martyn was unlucky - and he will have some explaining to do why he chose a personal cause above his team's - but Steve Waugh's wicket was well earned. Zaheer revealed at the press conference that the Indians have got a plan for Waugh, and from Agarkar's first ball to him, a sharp bouncer that he ducked under, it had been clear what the plan entailed. Sourav Ganguly expects no favours from the Australian fast bowlers, and he is willing to grant Waugh none. It might not be the best policy always against Waugh, for he gets out driving outside the off stump more often than hooking or fending. But today, he was suckered into a clumsy hook that got him so imbalanced that he trod upon his stumps.
The danger for India, however, lay ahead: 275 for 5 is not a terribly unfamiliar position for Adam Gilchrist, and he is known to respond with a furious hundred. Zaheer got him with the ball of the day: it pitched on good length, climbed and held its line. When VVS Laxman held on to the edge, diving to his left, it helped him exorcise the horrors of the TVS Cup final where he dropped them like a man with a compulsive aversion to leather.
This was Zaheer's third five-wicket haul in successive Tests abroad, and easily his best. Australian batsmen had claimed to have his number after mauling him in the World Cup final. The nervousness showed on him when he took the new ball on a fresh pitch yesterday. But he was in control of his faculties today, and while Australia are still in a strong position in this match, the eight overs he bowled today could be among the most significant in Zaheer's career.
Sambit Bal, editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.