Australia v India, 3rd Test, Melbourne, 1st day December 26, 2003

The sublime savage

Virender Sehwag: didn't look for cover against short bowling

The moment of the day came in Brett Lee's second over of the day. Virender Sehwag ducked into a bouncer, found himself hit on the back of his head and Indian hearts sank. The next ball was pitched up, and Sehwag, quickly into his stride, punched it past cover and sprinted back for the second run. The message had been sent: he wasn't interested in the safety of a single, he wasn't looking for cover. It was a step in sync with the spirit of this Indian team. It is a team that has learnt not to yield ground, and to confront adversity with a confident forward stride.

A few overs later, Sehwag took another blow, this time on the front of the head. It brought Akash Chopra, who had been struck a fearsome blow above his temple himself, quickly to his partner's end. Words of solidarity and a punch of gloves were exchanged, and business was resumed.

The last hour somewhat took the sheen out of India's day, but 339 for 4 was still a score that they would settle for, and it was the first hour that made it possible. It was dominated by Australia. Only 24 runs came from it, half of them from edges, but crucially for India, not a wicket was lost. Sourav Ganguly had won a toss that many reckoned was a good one to lose, and for the second time in the series, had taken a brave, but right decision. It was a decision that required courage and skill from his batsmen to be validated.

Often in the past Indian batsmen have succumbed to a condition of mind that froze upon detecting pace and bounce. In India's last tour here, a batting line-up boasting Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman had been bowled out for 238 and 195 on a similar pitch at the MCG, with Tendulkar standing alone with knocks of 116 and 52. After the featherbeds at Brisbane and the Adelaide Oval, the pace and bounce of the MCG presented the Indian batting line-up their sternest Test yet. By opting to bat, India had set them up for the challenge, but with Brett Lee back in the Australians ranks, the pre-lunch session was fraught with the gravest of risks.

Lee delivered the firepower Australia had visibly lacked in the last two Tests. He charged in with intent and dug them short at 150 km. Another time, it would have been enough to break the Indian batsmen's resolve. But Chopra and Sehwag weathered the battering with bravery and gumption, and never lost the alertness to pinch a single or to get forward to the full-pitch ball meant to do the damage after the batsmen had been pushed back with a barrage of short balls. The second hour brought 65 runs and at lunch, Lee had been quelled, and India was on their way to building up an astonishing opening partnership.

The openers have failed India the most in Australia on the last two tours. To understand what Chopra and Sehwag have done so far, it is illuminating to revisit 1999-00 when the opening partnerships read, 7 and 0, 11 and 5, and 10 and 22. Chopra and Sehwag have so far put up 61 and 4, 66 and 48, 141. Their partnership today was only the second century opening partnership against Waugh's team in Australia, and the fourth anywhere in the world. For India, it was the first opening stand in Australia of over 100 since 1985-86 when Sunil Gavaskar and Kris Srikkanth put on 191 at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Sehwag's blazing innings will no doubt be celebrated in history as one of the finest ever played on a opening day of a Test, but it shouldn't obscure Chopra's contribution. He has been a model of technical rectitude while tackling the new ball. He plays with a still head, with precise movement of feet and secure knowledge of his off stump. If he can overcome a tendency to lose his concentration after the hard work has been done, he might be the opener India has been searching for 17 years.

Sehwag manufactured shots he had no business to be playing

What can be said of Sehwag's buccaneering spirit? He came to Australia with a reputation of weakness against the short ball. It tested his character today, and it didn't break him. After the first hour, his strokeplay was what we have known it to be: audacious, inventive and always breathtaking. He cut and straight-drove the fast bowlers, smote and murdered the spinners and when Steve Waugh tried to fox him with a slower one, he deposited him over long-off.

Two strokes stood out. The first one was a flashing drive over cover off Lee. The ball was fullish and wide and Sehwag had no business to play it, and having played it, he had every business to edge it. Yet the ball flew off from the middle of the bat, high over the head of the cover fielder and quickly into the fence.

The second one was a swiveled flick off Williams long after he had scored his century. He took it from the middle, went up on his toes, created space and angle with his wrists and sent it smoothly to the midwicket fence. These two strokes sized up Sehwag's batsmanship. One was savage, hit with brute power and amazing bat-speed, the other was sublimely wristy and artful. And his dismissal completed the story: it was a caused by a mad rush of blood and a mind that will be not be daunted. It was stupid because it let Australia back in the match, but who can argue with 195 dazzling runs?

Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.