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October 15, 2004
For much of the second day, it must have seemed like old times for the Chennai crowd. For over a decade, people have flocked to the MA Chidambaram stadium to see Sachin Tendulkar score his obligatory century - four in six Tests, two of them match-winning efforts against Australia - and in the master's absence, the turf was claimed by Virender Sehwag, look-alike apprentice first, but now very much his own man.
Sehwag's 155 was over two-thirds of the runs India made while he was at the crease and with the second highest score being 34 its importance can not be overstated. However it was a study in contrast to the innings Tendulkar played six years ago. That innings - 155 off 191 balls - deflated Shane Warne's confidence, and set up an Indian win after Australia had established a useful first-innings lead. It was an immaculate knock that emphatically marked out territory and so demoralised Australia that they were pulverised in Kolkata despite Tendulkar not contributing much.
Where Tendulkar's innings had been masterful and chanceless, Sehwag's was an mix of glorious strokeplay, wild heaves and impetuous hoicks that barely evaded fielders. Two inside edges off the wretchedly unlucky Michael Kasprowicz squirted past the stumps, and a couple of mishits off Warne barely eluded the fielders, but he also regaled the crowd with some sumptuous strokeplay, in particular the cover-drive and nonchalant pull that greeted Glenn McGrath on his return for a second spell.
As he had at the MCG last Boxing Day, Sehwag was content to let the bowlers hold sway for the first hour. The shackles only came off with the introduction of Warne who he greeted with some tremendous lofted strokes through the leg side. But having reached his hundred in just 147 balls, he lost sight of the objective - to ensure that India don't have to bat a second time on a pitch where variable bounce is already a worry.
Every so often, he would step out and attempt an ungainly heave, as if unaware of the fact that India still had to overhaul Australia's modest 235. What made it worse was the fact that those batting around him weren't exactly in sublime form. To say that such methods are the Sehwag way is to do an injustice to a man who is clearly capable of so much more.
The same accusation couldn't be made about Kasprowicz. It's one of the great travesties of international cricket - or an indicator of Australian cricket's depth - that such a magnificent bowler will most likely retire with figures that are inferior to men like Andy Caddick - fantastic on his day, but an underachieving sulk when things weren't going for him.
Kasprowicz has always strained every sinew, and never let the shoulders droop, not even when Sachin Tendulkar drove him to despair on that tour six years ago. Since his return from the wilderness six months ago, he has picked up 24 wickets at 23.7, markedly superior to his overall career figures of 73 wickets at 32.5. Crucially, he has slotted seamlessly into the role of second or third seamer, providing an accurate and threatening option on pitches where guile and heart are every bit as important as skill.
Skill has never been Warne's problem, but against India he continues to be a wan shadow of the bowler who has made a habit of making great batsmen look inept. The man who has 76 wickets from 12 matches against Pakistan (average 18.6) and 59 from 13 Tests against Sri Lanka (at 25.54) simply cannot master either India's batsmen or the conditions.
Warne's conundrum is even more bizarre when you look at the success that bowlers like Ashley Mallett (28 wickets at 19.1) and Greg Matthews (14 at 29.07) - neither quite in the Warne class - have had in Indian conditions. And while even Nicky Boje's innocuous left-arm spin has won a Test match in India, Warne - who responded to the crowd chanting his name by impersonating Tendulkar's big hits and Billy Bowden's signals - is yet to enjoy an Indian summer. On this evidence, it's hard to see when the sun will shine.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.
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