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October 9, 2004
Just as they did in the opening Test of the 2000-01 series, Australia are poised to overwhelm India in the first match of this rubber. India could have done without two poor umpiring decisions and a ridiculous run-out when they were chasing 457, but the truth is that they have been out-thought and outmanoeuvred by an Australian side which is the best-prepared one for the Indian challenge in the last two decades. It hasn't been a demonstration of power cricket that has helped Australia crush their opponents over the past four days, but a near-perfect execution of a plan. India have been wrong-footed.
Steve Waugh built an aura around Australia through intimidation, more pronounced in his approach to batting than bowling. Scoring big runs at nearly four an over, Australia's batsmen gave their bowlers attacking fields and plenty of time to bowl teams out. But the rigidity of that approach cost them matches against India, who possessed a batting line-up rivalling their own. It failed them at Kolkata in 2001 - and at Adelaide in 2003-04, when their batsmen couldn't hold out for a draw.
It will be of scant comfort to them now, but it is to India's credit that they have managed to provoke caution in Australia. Throughout this Test, the Aussies have set deep fields, even with runs in the bank, never given a cheap run away, and more vitally, haven't looked to smash the leather off the ball while batting.
No-one has exemplified this approach more than Adam Gilchrist, standing in as captain for Ricky Ponting in these first two Tests. He once lost Australia a Test at Headingley trying to save Steve Waugh's legacy. His declaration was aggressive, but generous, and Mark Butcher played an inspirational innings to win the match for England. But Gilchrist has absorbed the lesson of his last visit to India, when he scored a blistering hundred in the first Test at Mumbai and carried on sweeping as if in a trance. His next four scores were 0, 0, 1 and 1.
On this tour, from the first time he has laid bat to ball, it has been apparent that Gilchrist has adjusted his game to the occasion rather than backing his ability to play in the manner that has brought him most of his runs so far. He has taken the safer option of playing down the ground rather than square of the wicket - and yet, amazingly, he has scored at almost his normal pace without ever looking brutal.
The Indians could hardly contain themselves when Matthew Hayden fell to the sweep trap on the first morning. But that was the only plan that worked for them in the first innings as Michael Clarke and Simon Katich, both swift of foot and nimble of wrist, danced down to drive and loft, and taking advantage of the short balls that resulted from their forays down the track. And Gilchrist rendered the fielders at deep midwicket and deep square leg redundant, by simply refusing to sweep.
Equally revealing has been the Australians' approach to field-placings. Some of them - posting a deep midwicket to Sourav Ganguly in his second over from Shane Warne, or deep backward square and a cover sweeper to Parthiv Patel - were admittedly a bit strange, but they have consistently looked to wear down batsmen rather than blast them out. The Aussies started with a deep point for Virender Sehwag, packed the on side when VVS Laxman came in, and had catchers in the leg-side ring for Rahul Dravid. Only on the third evening, with Patel fresh at the crease, did we see a traditional Australian slip cordon. Their fast bowlers have given a skilful demonstration of bowling on a wicket has had little for them. They have bowled straighter and fuller, in the knowledge that lbw or bowled are likelier modes of dismissal than slip catches.
Shane Warne, too, has learned from his earlier misadventures. Mindful of the Indians' ability to pick his flight and hit him off the front foot, he has bowled flatter and quicker, and has managed to remove Laxman - the man who has tormented Australia even more than Sachin Tendulkar - first with one that turned sharply, and then with one that didn't turn at all. On both occasions, Laxman was rooted to his crease.
It was a wonderful sight today to see Warne bowling alongside Glenn McGrath. Fast bowlers have hunted in pairs down the years, as have spinners. But McGrath and Warne are a unique pair - one a master of the percentages, the other a master of the revolutions; one forcing mistakes through accuracy, the other coaxing mistakes through variety. At the peak of their game, they are a formidable combination, both presenting different challenges to the batsman, and creating opportunities for each other. Both have made comebacks recently, McGrath from injury and Warne from disgrace. McGrath was finding his feet when they were reunited in the home series against Sri Lanka in July, but here they were, restored to dignity and good health, bowling as well as they ever have.
The only cheer for India came from Harbhajan Singh. Operating almost unchanged from one end throughout the morning, he gave a magnificent exhibition of offspin bowling on a pitch that was beginning to grip. He made every Australian batsman struggle for runs, and earned each of his six wickets. Largely thanks to him, the Aussies didn't run away with the match in the first hour. He has now taken 45 wickets against Australia in the last five home Tests - 39 in the last three alone - and if India's batsmen can somehow manage to give him more runs to play with, this series might still turn out to be a contest.
Sambit Bal is editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and of Wisden Cricinfo in India.