India v Australia, 2nd Test, Mohali, 3rd day October 19, 2008

Unexpected heroes step into the limelight

Cricinfo staff
The cricket's been prosaic rather than nail-biting, and some of the leading actors appear to have forgotten where the stage is


If you'd told Australia Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh would have figures of 5 for 399 after three innings, there would have been a smile as wide as the Nullarbor Plain on Ricky Ponting's face © AFP
 

Eight days into the series, and the script has already been blown off course. The cricket's been prosaic rather than nail-biting, and some of the leading actors appear to have forgotten where the stage is. If you'd told Australia Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh would have figures of 5 for 399 after three innings, there would have been a smile as wide as the Nullarbor Plain on Ricky Ponting's face. If you'd told the Indians Brett Lee would take only three wickets at a cost of 66, there would have been few complaints.

Matthew Hayden, the run machine of 2001 and the scorer of three centuries in Australia last year, has 13 runs and two blobs to his name so far, while VVS Laxman, scourge of Australian attacks this decade, has just 54. Michael Clarke, he of the dazzling footwork and 400 runs from 2004, has struggled to 40 runs in three knocks and his inability to pick Amit Mishra's wonderful googly from round the wicket late on the second day told you quite a bit about the anxiety that seems to have gripped his game.

Mishra will hog the limelight on Sunday evening after showcasing almost all the qualities you need to be a fine practitioner of cricket's most demanding art, but Australia's debutant, Peter Siddle, too impressed with tidy spells on a surface that was a world apart from what he usually finds at the MCG. Mitchell Johnson, seen as Australia's third pace option behind Lee and the now-crocked Stuart Clark, has easily been the most impressive of the visiting bowlers, and there have been encouraging signs too from Cameron White, expected to be a barely legspinning lamb to Indian slaughter.

Perhaps both teams have focused so much attention and energy on the marquee names that the guard has slipped when faced with the allegedly lesser lights. Australia have tried restrictive fields for Virender Sehwag, and then been surprised by the fact that Gautam Gambhir has picked off runs with almost as much fluency. India's bowlers have kept Hayden and Clarke quiet, but met stiffer-than-expected resistance from the likes of Lee.

For India, the emergence of a bowling attack that can pretty much take the surface out of the equation is a hugely encouraging sign. Both Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan have been potent with new ball and old, and their ability to get the reverse-swing going much earlier than the Australians could yet prove to be a pivotal difference in this series. Australia have Troy Cooley, acknowledged as the architect of England's reverse-swing triumph in 2005, but thus far there has only been isolated evidence of a plan being in place. Used to the Kookaburra ball in Australia, the Australian quicks, Johnson apart, have been comprehensively outbowled with the SG by India's duo.

 
 
Over the next two days, Australia need the big names to justify the pre-series hype, else they'll face the unedifying prospect of journeying to Fortress Feroz Shah Kotla - seven Indian wins on the trot - with their grip on the Border-Gavaskar Trophy as loose as a drunken handshake
 

Mishra too worked wonders on a pitch that was still almost without blemish at the end of the third day. Being vertically challenged, he has little option but to flight the ball, and he showed real character to stick to his strengths despite the odd loose delivery disappearing to the boundary. He spoke later of the selector who has also been a big influence on his career, but unlike Narendra Hirwani, who took 16 on debut against the West Indies in Chennai, Mishra wasn't bowling on a minefield.

Watson admitted that it was a beautiful batting pitch and that Australia had a lot of catching up to do with both bat and ball. The way he batted for his 78 - and remember that he probably wouldn't even be playing if not for Andrew Symonds going fishing - was a lesson for his team-mates, borrowing heavily from the Damien Martyn school of back-foot batsmanship that was so successful back in 2004.

Over the next two days, Australia need the big names to justify the pre-series hype, else they'll face the unedifying prospect of journeying to Fortress Feroz Shah Kotla - seven Indian wins on the trot - with their grip on the Border-Gavaskar Trophy as loose as a drunken handshake. Lee may have blown a kiss at Ishant today as the friendly banter in the middle intensified, but what his team really needs from him is a spell that blows the Indian top order away. And a little reverse would go a long way.