Tendulkar's mission control
The lead-up to this Test had been full of distractions - Anil Kumble's injury, the players still fighting like children over who brought forward moral victories from Bangalore, the unseasonal rains in Mohali raising doubts over the match going the distance. Around a quarter past one on the first day more distractions were about to unfold. When Rahul Dravid played Brett Lee onto his stumps, the Test sort of took a back seat and another aside started: Sachin Tendulkar's progress towards Brian Lara's record.
It was a pretty edgy hour and a quarter - so edgy it was surreal - that followed, during which Tendulkar made his way to the record and India lost two more wickets. What followed immediately after was more distraction from Test-match cricket: fire-crackers went off at the PCA Stadium and continued for three minutes. The Australians rushing to congratulate Tendulkar was expected but when it happened it felt unreal coming from a team that plays its cricket hard.
There would be other milestones to follow, too: Tendulkar would go past 12,000 runs and Sourav Ganguly past 7000. But when Tendulkar bats as he did for the next two hours, distractions don't matter. Effortlessly, he brought people back to the actual game and, with Ganguly's help, India into the match.
India had a confident, brisk start on a pitch conducive to one; the bounce was true but not big and there was no sideways movement. The immediate assessment was a total close to 500 would be par for this track. Gautam Gambhir and Dravid looked to put India on the way, but failed to score centuries - crucial for both of them, for different reasons - that appeared there for the taking. This was a pitch on which a batsman, once settled, would kick himself for not reaching three figures.
Gambhir is due a big score. He has done well since forcing his way back to the Test side following his limited-overs success, and has been a good foil to Virender Sehwag at the top. He has scored 427 runs in nine innings on comeback, against tough opposition and in trying conditions, but his best has been 72. That he gets starts points to his form - perhaps the best of his career - but he also leaves the team in a spot of bother by not converting those starts into big innings, as he did today and during the first innings at the PSS in Sri Lanka this summer. In 19 Tests Gambhir only has one century, against Bangladesh. That should be enough to rile and inspire him.
The way he batted in the first session today, it seemed certain Gambhir would end that century drought. For some reason, despite being an excellent rotator of strike in limited-overs cricket, he got bogged down when the field spread and the bowling became accurate. Having eased to 25 from 39 balls, Gambhir slowed down. He went into lunch on 53 from 90 balls and in the next hour or so he faced 50 balls for just 14 runs.
If this was uncharacteristic, so was Dravid's innings. Instead of the patchy starts he's had recently, Dravid began, instinctively speaking, the way he did when at the top of his game. But this was his 11th score between 30 and 100, to go with one century, in his last 15 Tests. When scoring was made difficult, Dravid didn't seem to show the kind of patience one associates with him. Once he went after a delivery wide outside off stump, and missed. In his prime Dravid would have left such deliveries alone for the next half hour; today, he went for the next delivery and failed to connect properly. Three overs later he went to cut another wide one, which was marginally too full, and chopped it onto his stumps.
At this point Australia had taken three wickets, only one of them earned. A fourth followed, amid the frenzy around Tendulkar, but Mitchell Johnson should consider himself lucky to dismiss a quality batsman like VVS Laxman with a leg-side ball that didn't deserve a wicket. Suddenly India had lost three wickets for 13 runs and were in danger of getting bowled out for a below-par total on a good batting track.
Thankfully for India Tendulkar, once he'd acquired Lara's record, batted with fluency. There was nothing circumspect about the way he played after tea. Ganguly took the initiative, but it was Tendulkar who showed Australia how hopelessly unhelpful the pitch was on the first day. There was no discrimination: no bowler nor shot escaped Tendulkar. Ganguly, in distinct patches of quietness and aggressive intent, was solid throughout. The difference in India's approach after tea was clear: the first time Tendulkar faced the new ball he deposited it to the cover boundary.
Australia were reduced to being honest witnesses who relied on the batsmen's mercies and mistakes. And a mistake is what they drew from Tendulkar towards the end of the play. As a result, while they didn't have any say in the way the game progressed, they ended the day pretty much even. India need a big partnership tomorrow morning to take a clear advantage. And tomorrow, there won't be as many distractions from Test cricket.