India overcome early struggles, again
Many Indians are familiar with the benefits of the Surya Namaskar, but anyone who's watched the cricket team could tell you that they're not really morning folk, especially not on the first day of a series. Comatose starts are the norm rather than the exception and the first day in Mohali was no different.
After Zaheer Khan had struck early, Ishant Sharma's lack of control was compounded by chronic no-ball problems. By the time he went off with a jarred knee, he had conceded 41 from his last 4.4 overs and Australia were cruising. Zaheer, too, lacked zip and it was left to Pragyan Ojha to keep India afloat as Australia went past 100 runs in the session.
But on Indian pitches where the ball goes soft in no time, the home team has a reputation for clawing back from hopeless situations. Australia have been at the receiving end enough times to know that. The famous Eden Gardens Test is remembered primarily for the 376-run partnership, but on the opening afternoon, Australia went from 193 for 1 to 291 for 8 in 36.3 overs.
Three years later, in Chennai, Anil Kumble took 7 for 48 as a formidable 136 for 0 after 33 overs disintegrated into 235 all out (71.3 overs). And as recently as this February, South Africa felt the full force of the Indian afternoon riposte, losing 8 for 48 after being 218 for 1.
You'd love to be a fly on the wall in the Indian dressing room at lunch on such days, but according to Ojha, who went through 31 overs on the first day, there were no reprimands or any special instructions at the interval. "We were going to bowl according to our plans, and not give them any extra runs," he said.
From 154 for 1 in 41.3 overs, Australia managed just 70 runs in the remaining 48.3, a scoring-rate you tend to associate with the darkest days of Test cricket in the 1950's and '60s. And for once, it wasn't a remarkable spell of spin bowling or reverse-swing that got India back into the game. It was something that the side is scarcely renowned for.
It's far too early to say what kind of Test batsman Suresh Raina will be. But what his inclusion in the XI has done is inject some youthful verve and athleticism to an inner ring that isn't famed for stopping quick singles. There was a moment of hesitation from Ricky Ponting's side as Shane Watson set off for the single, but it's safe to say that Australia's captain would have made his ground if it had been any of the other nine outfielders swooping down on the ball.
In Watson's mind, that was clearly the day's turning point. "It was mainly the way the Indians bowled after the unfortunate run-out of Ricky," he said. "Their fielding lifted, and they bowled a lot better too. Early on in the first session, we were able to rotate strike fairly easily, and score fairly easily as well. As soon as Ricky got run out, they really stepped up.
"It was really difficult to score. The spinners especially bowled very well. The ball goes a bit soft as well, so it's hard to really pierce the field at times. The last couple of wickets were disappointing. It's very hard to start against the reverse-swinging ball, and Zaheer is very skilled in these conditions."
As steadily and well as Ojha bowled, it was Zaheer's spell after tea that was the difference between an average day and a good one for India. "Right now, if Ishant was there, it would have been great," said Ojha, when asked about the lack of a second pace bowler once the ball started to reverse. "We don't want to look at the negatives. The other three bowlers have done brilliantly, and we also expect Ishant to come back. Zak was amazing. He did the job."
Had Australia put many more runs on the board, India would have had far more reason to regret the dropped catches that helped Watson on his way to a second Test hundred. As it was, Ojha said the team was pretty happy with the day's work. "The way we came back the last few overs was great," he said. "Getting those three or four wickets has put them under pressure."
And while Watson suggested that going wicketless would give Ojha something to ponder before day two, the man himself reckoned that he had done what was expected of him. "My role was very clear," he said. "I was trying to attack them. I had attacking fields set and was bowling at the stumps. I was trying to make them take a chance. I'm very satisfied. They haven't taken any chances against me."
Two years ago, India scored 469 in the first innings and won by a whopping 320 runs. Watson suggested that this pitch was much slower and lower, and a score in excess of 350 could still be very competitive. "It looks like it will turn after a couple of days." said Ojha. "If we stick to our line and length, we'll extract something from it. It's going to be a bit slow."
Slowness was the name of the game on the first afternoon, but the action was anything but boring. With Watson still there, Australia can dream of a big total. As for India, the question is whether to stick to the old ball or try and engineer a twist with the new one. Unfortunately for them, they might only have Zaheer to use it.