India v Australia, 2nd Test, Chennai, 3rd day

A healthy fear

Parthiv Patel: getting better with the bat but worse with the gloves © Getty Images

The 103-run partnership between two young men, Mohammad Kaif and Parthiv Patel, neither of whom is a certainty in the side, may well prove to be the decisive phase of this Test. When they came together, the score was 232 for 6, with India still three runs behind and in danger of unravelling. But Kaif and Patel helped India to a lead of over 100, and those runs, in what is a relatively low-scoring match so far, could prove to be the difference between the sides - much like the 274 runs that Australia's fifth and sixth wickets added in the first innings at Bangalore.

India's lower order had shown steel in the first Test as well, but steel on a shaky foundation counts for little. In this game, though, the top-order batsman, led by Virender Sehwag, had taken India to a strong position. The men who followed were in a position to drive home the advantage, instead of having to struggle for survival.

Kaif batted as if he belongs at this level of the game, matching solid defence with elegant strokeplay and abundant patience. He should be a part of this Indian side for a while, but what will happen when Sachin Tendulkar returns? One worries that Kaif will be asked to open, and one more middle-order batsman could wither away in an unfamiliar position, as was almost the case with VVS Laxman. Kaif does have the technique to open, though, certainly more so than Yuvraj Singh. Watch that space.

Parthiv Patel did a great job of standing up to Australia's bowlers, but a terrible job of standing up to Anil Kumble. In fact, he let down all of India's bowlers, making chances that would have been regulation for most international wicketkeepers look fiendishly difficult. Zaheer Khan was especially hard done by, bowling with an intensity that was completely lacking at Bangalore. But he was deprived of due reward, in both innings, by shoddy wicketkeeping. He was driven, perhaps, by the fear of being dropped, just as Kaif and Patel were. It is a healthy fear.

It is ironic that when Patel made his debut in England in 2002, his wicketkeeping technique was so sound that the big question posed in regard to him was: "The boy can keep, but can he bat?" Now, after four fifties and a 46 in his last six Tests, that question has been reversed.

Why has Patel, who seemed such a good wicketkeeper two years ago, gone backwards, despite his eagerness to learn? It is a question that John Wright should address, as should India's chief selector, Kiran More, who was a fine wicketkeeper himself. It is their job to nurture young talent, and understanding what went wrong in Patel's case would be instructive.

No matter what transpires in this Test, Patel should be dropped, and sent back to Gujarat to play domestic cricket. Despite two years in international cricket, Patel hasn't played a single Ranji Trophy match, and he needs experience on Indian pitches. His performances with the bat should not count in his favour here - a wicketkeeper's batting becomes relevant to his selection only when his work behind the stumps is adequate, and Patel's is not. His lapses have cost India, with both Justin Langer in the first innings and Matthew Hayden in the second adding crucial runs after being reprieved. In the tense, tight series that this is turning out to be, India cannot afford more of the same.

The 11 wickets that fell on the first day pointed towards a four-day game, but pitches in this series have a way of belying expectations. After his century on the second day, Sehwag said that it was a good surface for batting, and Kaif and Patel - and later Adam Gilchrist - were certainly in no trouble. That just underscores what an outstanding spell Kumble bowled on the first day.

When Australia last toured the subcontinent, to play Sri Lanka earlier this year, their second-innings scores were 512 for 8 dec, 442 and 375. This game is still not done, because a fourth-innings target of even 150 would be no easy ask. Shane Warne picked up his first five-wicket haul in India in the first innings, but it wasn't redemption. That could yet come.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He writes the cricket blog, 23 Yards, for this site.