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October 8, 2004
Barring a reprise of Kolkata 2001 or Headingley 1981, Australia will wrap up this contest some time over the next two days. And to comfort themselves, many Indians will no doubt look to memories of Australia's last tour, when India stormed back after being pulverised at Mumbai. But as Parthiv Patel and Irfan Pathan showed this morning, there are already subtle differences between the two scripts.
With the exception of the peerless Sachin Tendulkar, the capitulation in Mumbai had been shameful, a disgrace exemplified by Nayan Mongia's backing-away when stomach for the fight was the need of the hour. Patel and Pathan showed that even if India do go down, it won't be with white flags waving. Until a dubious decision sent Pathan on his way, they blunted the best that Australia sent their way, seeing off Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz, and also playing Shane Warne with a measure of comfort that would be the envy of top-order batsmen in other parts of the world.
Though question marks remain over his collection behind the stumps, Patel the batsman epitomises the spirit that was shown by this Indian team in Australia and Pakistan. When you see him face up to McGrath, you half-fear that a concerned member of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children might run on to the field and shepherd him out of harm's way. But there was nothing remotely boy-against-man about the manner in which he played McGrath, with an impressive straight bat and terrific judgement of line and length.
Both he and Pathan were not only unflappable but also determined to grit it out in orthodox fashion, eschewing the crude slogs and airy wafts that can sometimes pass for lower-order batting. And it was not just a stonewalling job either, as Shane Warne found out when Pathan twice lofted him over point with an élan that suggested India might have finally found a bowler who can be counted on to make a difference with bat in hand.
To be fair to Australia, though, there was nothing much in the surface for the bowlers to exploit. All pre-game horror stories about cracks and dustbowls has merely exposed the stupendous ignorance of most when it comes to reading a pitch. As an esteemed colleague noted, the WACA in Perth usually sports enough cracks to lose several keys - John Buchanan is the expert to consult on that subject - but that hasn't exactly made it a slow bowlers' paradise down the years.
Contrary to the conspiracy theories, this has been a wonderful Test match wicket, with something in it for the strokeplayers - Michael Clarke and Adam Gilchrist certainly had no complaints - and for quick bowlers adept at using the seam. And even though both Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble bowled fine spells late in the day, no batsman could really whine about 90-degree turn, shoelace-high bounce or mushroom clouds of dust exploding off the surface.
The run rate was well below three an over, an anomaly given the aggression and belligerence that has underpinned these gripping encounters in recent seasons. But neither team took a backward step on a day when the oft-neglected art of defence and consolidation was showcased in a positive light. Australia may have this match by the scruff, but as the decision not to enforce the follow-on showed, they are well aware of how quickly things can change with Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman on the opposition teamsheet.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.
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