Flat Hauritz adds to Australia's woes
The pink-red stains all over Nathan Hauritz's whites were oddly symbolic as Australia's inexperienced attack endured a bruising couple of sessions before wickets with the second new ball gave them a thin sliver of hope heading into the fourth day. Hauritz, Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus came into the game with a combined total of 65 caps, while Peter George had played just 19 first-class games. Zaheer Khan alone has 73 caps.
Since the retirements of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, Australia have had to endure some tough days in the field. When they were around, partnerships like the 376-run one that VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid shared at the Eden Gardens in 2001 were notable exceptions rather than the rule. When Sachin Tendulkar and Laxman put on 353 at the SCG three years later, neither was present, with McGrath injured and Warne serving a suspension for pills that his mum gave him.
Since those halcyon days when the mere sight of legends in baggy green was enough to terrify most opponents into submission - India were the exception - the bowling resources at Ricky Ponting's disposal have dwindled steadily. Brett Lee has faded away, Peter Siddle got injured after a promising start, and Ryan Harris too has succumbed to niggles and pains.
The paucity of options was apparent on Monday morning. An early wicket or two and India, 350 behind at the start of the day, would have been under real pressure. Instead, Hauritz bowled two terrible deliveries down the leg side, Tendulkar cashed in to reach his 50 and the crowd came alive.
Hilfenhaus was again impressive, hitting the pitch hard and also trying variations unexpected from someone often pigeonholed as an out-and-out swing bowler. But Johnson's efforts to bounce Tendulkar out were contemptuously swatted away, and the first hour saw India seize the initiative to such an extent that they could ease off either side of lunch.
"We were probably a little bit flat when you look at it," said Johnson after the day's play. "When we went out there, we probably tried a bit too hard and it didn't work for us. As the day went on, Vijay and Tendulkar obviously batted very well on that wicket."
With the sun shining and the pitch doing little, Australia created little by way of chances. The one they missed could have changed the game, as Hauritz made a hash of a throw to the keeper with Vijay, then just 49, stranded nearly mid-pitch. Hilfenhaus was unlucky not to have Vijay leg-before when he had made 77, but that and a Tendulkar inside-edge that streaked for four aside, there were desperately few what-might-have-been moments.
As the day progressed, Ponting's mind might have gone back to Perth in December 2008, when South Africa scored 227 for 3 on the penultimate evening, before knocking off the remaining 187 for the loss of just Jacques Kallis on the final day. Tendulkar, in particular, was imperious, punishing every bad ball and threading the ball into gaps pretty much as he pleased.
"No doubt it's tough out there in Test match cricket on wickets like that, and he [Tendulkar] has scored 14,000 runs, so it's pretty hard yakka out there," Johnson said. "I said when I arrived that I enjoy the challenges of these wickets and coming up against such great batsmen. But it's not disheartening. Hilfenhaus did extremely well without any luck. He had a chance almost chopped on from Tendulkar, and bowled extremely well today. We're sticking together as a bowling unit and we're going to keep fighting hard to win it."
Ponting plumped for Hauritz over Jason Krejza a couple of years ago because he felt that he would offered him more control. But after enjoying success against mediocre batting line-ups during the last home summer, his limitations have been ruthlessly exposed by India. He has gone for nearly four an over, without presenting anything like the attacking threat that Krejza did on his debut in Nagpur two years ago. With George clearly nervous on debut and mostly entrusted with bouncing Vijay, Johnson and Hilfenhaus were the only wicket-taking cards in the Ponting deck.
The second new ball is now 32 overs old and if Australia don't break through early on day four - a little cloud cover could help a great deal - another long day beckons. On this type of surface, running through the tail is not guaranteed either, and Ponting will still have nightmares of that day at the MCG when JP Duminy, assisted by Paul Harris, Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini, added 275 for the final three wickets to transform a game that Australia had under control.
MS Dhoni hasn't done as well against Australia as he has against other teams - he averages 31.66 against a career figure of 41 - but the impetuous stroke that Suresh Raina played to get out right after Ponting had moved the long-on in has given him the perfect opportunity to put the series out of Australia's reach. With Tendulkar looking serene at one end and little sign of reverse-swing, it could just be a question of surviving half an hour and then batting on as long as they can.
It took Hauritz four years to return to the Test side after the Indians took a shine to him at Mumbai in 2004. And if he doesn't perk up on day four, it's not inconceivable that another spell on the sidelines beckons. That shirt certainly doesn't need any more red on it.