Sehwag century puts India in command
Close India 329 for 4 (Sehwag 195) v Australia
Virender Sehwag on the way to a scintillating century
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A scintillating 195 from Virender Sehwag propelled India to a position of strength on a riveting first day's play at the MCG. India posted 329 for 4, though once again without any contribution from Sachin Tendulkar, whose horror run with the bat continued. Sehwag dominated the first two sessions and much of the third, putting on 141 for the first wicket with Akash Chopra and 137 for the second with Rahul Dravid, but Australia fought back strongly in the last session, taking three wickets for 33 to check India's progress.
Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman weathered a hostile spell from Brett Lee at the end of the day's play with the second new ball, and Australia could have actually had a fifth wicket when Ganguly spooned a catch back at Lee, only for the bowler to put it down. India would be satisfied with their position at stumps, and delighted with Sehwag's majestic effort, a contribution that went beyond anybody's expectations.
Sehwag's innings was one utterly characteristic of him, but on a scale much larger than anything seen from him in international cricket thus far. It included, on the credit side, 25 fours and five bludgeoned sixes, and on the debit side, two hits on the helmet, a reprieve off a run-out chance in the fifth over of the day, and further escapes just before lunch when the third umpire gave him not out off a close line decision, and just after the break when Simon Katich at point put down a chance off Nathan Bracken.
Sehwag made the best of his good fortune, and batted with greater patience and discipline than he had previously in the series. His batting early in the morning was watchful, and marked by a number of excellent leaves against Bracken, his tormentor of the last few months. He played the quick bowlers almost exclusively off the back foot, cutting past point or over the heads of the slips, and driving down the ground when the ball was pitched up to him. The pick of his shots was a soaring six off Stuart MacGill's second ball of the day, played inside-out over extra cover with a free and easy swing of the bat.
His fifty came right on the stroke of lunch, with a flashing cut off Lee, and by the time he brought up his hundred, powering Brad Williams through midwicket, he had hit 16 fours and a six. After getting to the landmark, he upped the tempo without doing anything excessive - by his standards - hitting another six off MacGill and clubbing Steve Waugh into the stands in the last over before tea.
The Indian batsmen followed the basic rule of giving the first hour of the day to the bowlers and then imposing themselves on the opposition. They made less than 30 runs in a testing first hour after Ganguly had won the toss and elected to bat, but they were 89 for no loss by lunch, and added another 130 runs in the post-lunch session, as Sehwag ran amok against some increasingly ragged bowling. Even though they lost three wickets in the last session, they added another 110 to the score. Sehwag made more than half the runs scored in each of these sessions.
The only wicket to fall in the first two sessions was that of Chopra, popping a catch off bat and pad to Katich off MacGill when just three short of a well-deserved fifty. A sentry at the gates of a city under siege could not have been more watchful than Chopra, who took the sting out of the Australian attack with his three-hour long vigil, mixing patient defence with nudges and deflections.
The Australians wasted a number of chances and half-chances through the day, most notably in the fifth over of the morning with Sehwag on just 4, when Lee missed the easiest of chances to run him out at the striker's end, with both batsmen stranded on the other half of the pitch.
If Australia were still in the game at the end of the day, it was partly due to luck, but also to a crucial breakthrough made by Waugh, playing his penultimate Test on the ground where he made his debut against India in the Boxing Day Test in 1985.
Waugh gave himself an extended spell after tea, but India progressed to 278 for 1, with Sehwag the cynosure of all attention as he rattled along merrily and Dravid, coming off his two splendid knocks at Adelaide, having worked his way unfussily to 49. Then, against the run of play, Dravid was suckered by Waugh into aiming a shot at a ball well outside leg stump, and chipped a catch to a fielder precisely positioned for that stroke just in front of square leg (278 for 2). Since Waugh had spent a good part of his spell bowling short balls at the two batsmen with a fielder on the square-leg boundary, Dravid possibly failed to note, and adjust his play for, the fielder coming up.
Waugh wasted no time in taking himself off and bringing on Lee to attack Tendulkar. Lee's first ball to Tendulkar was a loosener down the leg side. Trying instinctively to work it to fine leg, Tendulkar appeared to get the faintest of touches with the bat as the ball brushed his pad, and was caught down the leg side by a diving Gilchrist (286 for 3). The only Tendulkar-like stroke seen during his brief stay at the crease came from Sehwag, who whipped a Williams delivery to the square-leg boundary with the distinctive flourish common to him and Tendulkar.
Sehwag's response to the loss of two quick wickets was to swing the first ball of a new spell from MacGill over midwicket for six. Waugh was now prompted into bringing on the left-arm spin of Katich, bowling with several fielders on the boundary. Sehwag, on 189, lashed a full toss beyond the boundary for his fifth six, and moved to within one stroke of his double-hundred. The next ball was another full toss, and in trying to repeat the stroke, Sehwag holed out to Bracken at the long-on boundary (311 for 4). It was an utterly captivating innings, the highest score ever by an Indian batsman at the MCG.
Chandrahas Choudhury is a staff writer with Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.