Slater the main act in rain-reduced show
Over recent seasons, inclement weather seems to have become more synonymous with the Boxing Day Test than the sense of theatre and excitement for which it has always been renowned. And this year's experience will do little to alter the impression; more than two and a half hours of play lost at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on a day during which the quality of the conditions rarely exceeded the mediocre.
In those passages of play that were possible, another relatively familiar pattern was also afforded repetition - namely, the Australians' indefatigable ability to recover from a poor start from their top order batsmen.
Following a three hour delay at the commencement, the locals had indeed looked to be courting trouble when Greg Blewett (2) and Justin Langer (8) fell inside the first hour of play. But, around the odd fortuitous escape, they thereafter showed exactly the same sense of steely resolve that has marked several recoveries from poor starts earlier in the summer and progressed to a scoreline of 3/138 by the time that bad light finally forced a cessation at 5:48 pm.
It was essentially opener Michael Slater (64*) who was the main star of the action that was conceived and he hit a number of delightful shots forward of the wicket throughout his exhibition. Despite the evidence of significant bounce and pace in an unusually white Melbourne pitch, the opener trusted his desire to play off the front foot for the most part and it reaped excellent rewards for him. His play through the covers was sparkling and he was also impressive when taking toll of those few deliveries directed on to the line of his pads.
Together with a still fidgety Mark Waugh (41), Slater added 93 runs for the third wicket and it was this association which essentially dictated the course of the day's proceedings. Moreover, it was a liaison which might ultimately come to be reviewed as one of the most critical of the Test. While there were signs that he was growing noticeably in confidence the further his hand progressed, Waugh was nevertheless scratchy right until the time that he was finally trapped lbw by Ajit Agarkar.
Although he played some fine shots when permitted the opportunity to launch on to the front foot, he was noticeably cramped a number of times by short balls which cut back into him. At no time was this more evident than when he fished hesitantly at an off cutter from Javagal Srinath (on 25) shortly after tea and survived a huge appeal for a caught behind verdict.
Exhaustive replays seemed to confirm the validity of Umpire David Shepherd's verdict but it again underlined the notion that full timing and placement still remained a distant ideal for him for the moment. To some extent, this was confirmed by the notion that he also looked unsure of himself when playing balls seaming away just outside the line of off stump.
Prior to the Slater-Waugh association, the Australians had struggled against an Indian attack which seemed to relish the statement of faith that had been invested in them by their captain's decision upon winning the toss to invite the Australians to bat. Although his spirits must have been deflated signficantly just two balls into the day by the sight of Anil Kumble inexplicably snatching at and dropping a regulation chance to catch a nervous looking Blewett prod into the gully, Srinath (2/35) opened especially impressively.
On a hard whitish pitch, he attained movement both in the air and off the seam and also capitalised on the substantial pace and bounce in a somewhat atypical MCG pitch. It indeed served as no surprise that he was able to induce a continually uncomfortable-looking Blewett to horribly bottom edge a short ball from wide outside off stump into his castle with an attempted pull in his following over. So accurately did he bowl initially, in fact, that the lbw dismissal of Langer 37 minutes later did not represent any real shock either, even though the Western Australian appeared to have been struck a little too high on the pad for Umpire Shepherd's decision to be wholeheartedly convincing.
Agarkar (1/23) also bowled determinedly at the outset and again in the late afternoon. Along with his new ball partner and an unimpressive Anil Kumble and Venkatesh Prasad, however, he was substantively unable to cash in on his team's two early breaks. Indeed, there was little joy for the Indians once Langer exited the stage, the Australians showing they were not in a sufficiently festive spirit to gift their opponents any further opportunities to make regular incisions.