Lee, Tendulkar grace MCG stage
Capitalising upon the opportunities afforded them by a significant improvement in Melbourne's weather, it was two players at opposite ends of the Test cricketing spectrum who emerged as the stars on a magical day three of the Second Test between Australia and India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground today. In his first Test, paceman Brett Lee dramatically provided the spark on another brilliant day for the home team and in response, Sachin Tendulkar composed a glorious innings amid the sheer wreckage of India's first innings score of 235 in response to the home team's 405.
On a day when the quality of Melbourne's weather finally reached the verge of acceptability for Test cricket, so this turn for the better was indeed replicated by a considerable improvement in both the amount and the general quality of the cricket which was played.
Almost immediately, the pitch again showed itself to be on the capricious side, and the opening passages of the morning's play belonged almost exclusively to India as a result. In conditions conducive to swing bowling, Javagal Srinath (4/130) beat the edge of the bat at least twice in the first over of the day, and similarly false strokes were n frequent evidence as the first half hour unfolded. That Adam Gilchrist (78), Ricky Ponting (67) and Shane Warne (2) were all forced to beat a hasty retreat back to the pavilion represented the ultimate confirmation of this pattern.
But for the next seven captivating hours, matters did not so easily fall India's way. Indeed, the tourists' aspirations of finally coming out on top at the end of a day's cricket in this series were more than adequately stymied from the moment that Lee (27) entered a Test arena for the first time to indulge in an unexpected, ungainly and effective half century stand for the ninth wicket with Damien Fleming (31*). Fleming again underlined the notion that he is gradually on the improve as a Test batsman, while Lee overcame some early nerves to hit out forcefully.
Although its effect was unlikely to have been greatly consequential, there was then time for another curious umpiring decision. Umpire David Shepherd ruled Glenn McGrath (1) to be run out even though it had appeared that Tendulkar had dislodged the bails before an incoming throw from Hrishikesh Kanitkar at cover hit the stumps at the bowler's end.
This then set the stage for a nerve jangling 28 minutes of batting for the Indians in the lead-up to the lunch adjournment. And, whilst VVS Laxman (5) and Sadagoppan Ramesh (4) did not experience too many tremors in that time, disaster for the tourists - and utter jubilation for Lee (5/44) - duly ensued when the New South Wales speedster pitched only his fourth ever delivery at Test level on an impeccable length and induced the latter to inside edge it into his stumps.
Matters became even more auspicious for Lee after he was switched to the Members' End for a second spell in mid-afternoon. It was then that Rahul Dravid (9) gifted him another wicket in his fifth over with a half-slash, half-cut at a short delivery which held its line wide outside the off stump. Around two wickets to McGrath and a dubious lbw decision which afforded Warne his 350th Test wicket, it was Lee's third spell (and more specifically, the fifth over of it) which then applied the icing to his by now delicious cake. Forty minutes before stumps, the paceman spectacularly reduced the chasm between ambition and reality with three breakthroughs in one over. India plunged from 5/167 to 8/169 in the space of six balls before a rapturous audience. The off stump of Mannava Prasad (6) was lost to a thundering full toss, Ajit Agarkar (0) was trapped lbw for his second successive golden duck by a fierce inswinging yorker, and then Javagal Srinath (1) parried a ball torridly aimed at his throat into the gully.
Somewhat unsurpisingly, it was yet again the brilliant Tendulkar (116) who was answering the unenviable call to shore up India's battered defences in the meantime. After an engrossing battle with a bouncer-hungry McGrath had kept him subdued through the early part of his stay, he gradually began to increase his scoring rate with a number of beautifully crafted strokes. Of these, none was more outrageously brilliant than a superb lofted off drive from Warne which sailed well over the fence and into the midst of a delighted Indian throng sitting in the lower reaches of the Southern Stand. But either side of that stroke, there were many to please the eye. Quite simply, his sense of assurance and sheer range of shots against an adroitly rotated attack were perfectly applied in these hostile circumstances.
In the course of registering a chanceless hundred (his 22nd of all time, his fifth against Australia and his first at this venue), he never seemed ill at ease and he played shots to all parts of the ground. He was probably never more at home than when he was driving into and through the covers - and he did so in both a forthright manner and on a serial basis until the moment in the shadow of stumps at which he skied a hook to Justin Langer at deep backward square leg off the bowling of Fleming.
As he began to lose support with rapidity at the other end, so he had opened his shoulders and toyed with the bowling to maintain the strike in even more emphatic style, some of his straight driving and pulling especially audacious. In this mindset, the use of his feet and the sheer craftsmanship of his batting were a pure joy to behold. This stood in complete contrast to the efforts of most of his batting teammates, whose inability to command him the support he deserved regrettably left a considerable amount to be desired.