Dhawan the villain in another Australian horror show
As he walked off the field at the end of his first day of batting in Test cricket, Shikhar Dhawan gave his impressive moustache a twirl. It's the kind of facial hair you expect to see on a movie villain and in the minds of Australia's bowlers, that's exactly what Dhawan was today. Every spectator at the Punjab Cricket Association Ground, Indian or not, was enthralled by Dhawan's scene-stealing performance. But for Australia's players, it was a horror film from which they could not escape.
Dhawan's innings was exquisite. It wasn't just the record of being the fastest century ever by a player on Test debut. It was the way he scored his runs. His placement was impeccable. If there was a gap, he found it. Thirty-three boundaries attest to his precision. There were wonderful back-foot drives of which Ricky Ponting would have been proud, drives through cover, cuts, glances, all class. He reached a hundred from 85 balls but did it without hitting in the air.
He was breathtaking, but Australia have been here before, and a little too recently for comfort. Hashim Amla destroyed them at the WACA in December with a similarly sublime innings, ruthless yet risk-free. Amla's hundred came from 87 balls and he destroyed them through the leg side, even if they bowled outside off. Here, Dhawan's strength was the off side and while it is possible that in form like this he was simply untouchable, the Australians could have asked more questions of his leg-side play.
After India finished the day at 283 for 0 and Dhawan went to stumps on 185 from 168 balls, Mitchell Starc was asked what the Australians could have done differently. He noted that Dhawan was so strong through the off side that even an off-stump line was probably granting him too much width. But then where do you bowl? It's a very fine line finding the right line to a batsman like Dhawan, but testing him more on middle and leg might have been wise.
Consider this: of the 185 runs that Dhawan scored, only 27 of them came through leg against the seamers or Nathan Lyon - that is, excluding when the ball was spinning in to him. When Xavier Doherty and Steven Smith were on, Dhawan was happy to pull or work the ball to leg, but much less so against anyone else. A consistent leg-stump line might have been defensive, but in the form Dhawan was in it was worth a try with a few catching men on that side.
It may not have worked. But good attacks find ways to create chances even if the conditions don't suit or a batsman threatens to have a day out. The only chance Australia created on the third day of this match was a Mankad from the first ball of the innings, and it was accidental. Amla in Perth, MS Dhoni in Chennai, Dhawan in Mohali - the list of batsmen who have created horror days in the field for Michael Clarke's Australians in the past few months is growing a little too quickly for comfort.
It hasn't helped that Australia's spinners have been ineffective. And when it has come to choosing the slow bowlers, there have been more flip-fops at the Australian selection table than there are in a Havaianas factory. In Chennai, Australia chose only Nathan Lyon and he was mauled by Dhoni. In Hyderabad they used Xavier Doherty and Glenn Maxwell, who went wicketless on the only day that mattered. Here, they have employed Lyon and Doherty and it was all the same story.
Australia's spinners don't have the guile and variation required to succeed in India, or at least they haven't been allowed to display it. An enormous part of the problem is of course that India's batsmen are so adept at playing spin. It's as if their first steps as toddlers must have been down the wicket. Dhawan and M Vijay were no different in this innings, confidently advancing to Lyon and Doherty and dispatching them with breathtaking ease.
Lyon went at 4.6 an over, Doherty cost 5.7 an over and three tripe-filled overs from Steven Smith leaked eight an over. Perhaps they will improve on the fourth day, but the damage has been done. Australia had to win this Test to have any chance of retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and a first-innings of 408 at least gave them something to bowl at. So far, the bowlers haven't been up to it.
Of course, the selectors didn't help themselves by banning James Pattinson, their best bowler of the series, over the so-called homework task. It was a decision made for long-term gain, but they are now experiencing the inevitable short-term pain. Pattinson and Mitchell Johnson might not regret their lapse, if it means avoiding a hiding. But this is far from the first day of the tour that has provided headaches for Clarke in the field.
So far in this series, the Australian attack has been less successful than any Australian bowling unit ever to visit India. As things stood at stumps on day three, their collective strike-rate was 102.81 for the series. That equates to a wicket every 17 overs. Keep that up and they'll be in the field for 170 overs per innings.
It might improve if they can find some traction on day four, but for now it is an atrocious record. By comparison, the struggling team led by Ricky Ponting in 2008 toiled for 87.57 balls per wicket. The victorious side under Adam Gilchrist in 2004 broke through every 50.26 deliveries. Wickets win matches. Wicketless days usually lead to defeats.
Perhaps their only blessing is that the washed-out first day has left them with a decent chance of salvaging a draw. The series is gone, but from here a draw would be a positive step. Surely things can only improve after the horror movie they witnessed on day three in Mohali. Can't they?
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here