Tendulkar shines on see-saw first day
Almost everything Sachin Tendulkar did today - from opening his account with a brush off the pads for four, to punching gloves with VVS Laxman at lunch to strutting back after tea - pointed to a batsman full of intent. His efforts paid off, despite a run-out chance on 74 and drops on 85 and 98 off the persevering debutant Jason Krejza, as he scored his 40th Test hundred to lead India's recovery, after a pre-lunch flurry of wickets, to 311 for 5 on the opening day in Nagpur.
India lost debutant M Vijay, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag in 29 deliveries towards the end of the first session before the two in-form veterans shored up the innings. For nearly three and a half hours, Tendulkar and Laxman batted gracefully for 146 runs, their stand the highlight of India's day.
Tendulkar looked at ease since replacing Dravid - out for a duck - driving straight and impregnable in defence. He was the early aggressor in the partnership with Laxman, unfurling a slog-sweep over midwicket and a lofted on-drive in one Krejza over to raise India's 150. While the faster men were driven through cover, flicked to midwicket quite fluently or on-driven with laser-like precision, the spinners were tackled with excellent footwork.
Laxman, not at his most silky and sublime, collected his runs slowly and mechanically. As in Delhi, where he stroked 259 unbeaten runs, he stood firm, as has become his trademark. Even when the ball stopped on him, Laxman relied on those supple wrists and worked Krejza over the infield. The only phase when he was troubled was during Brett Lee's second spell, when the bowler obtained a bit of reverse-swing.
The scoring rate dipped with each session, from five - after Sehwag had blazed away - to four and under, but the objective rarely wavered. The pair scurried hard singles and dispatched anything loose - of which there was plenty - and almost always picking their mark whenever they went aerial.
Tendulkar slowed down as tea approached, perhaps mindful of his mistakes in Mohali and Delhi. His teatime 62 comprised eight fours, seven of which were muscularly hit on the leg side. He still outpaced Laxman on resumption, adding another 47 in the final session. A fierce sweep from outside the off stump and over wide mid-on took Tendulkar into the eighties and he should have stayed there. Tendulkar waltzed down to Krejza, didn't get to the pitch of the ball, and Mitchell Johnson dropped a comfortable chance running back from mid-off. The next delivery, Laxman coolly went past fifty with a drive wide of sweeper-cover, but a loose shot against Krejza, making room to cut, was snapped up on the second attempt by Brad Haddin.
Proximity to his century seemed to have fired up Tendulkar, who dashed out, very untypically, against Krejza on 98 and looked on as Lee spilled a running catch at mid-off. Having spent 11 deliveries on 99, Tendulkar raised his bat in the warm Nagpur air after raising his hundred - and tenth against Australia - with a spanking cut. He hardly played a shot thereafter and fell lbw to Johnson for 109 with 15 minutes to go.
Sehwag's panache was complemented by Vijay's solidity on perhaps the easiest track to make your debut as a batsman. Allowed to drive on the up mid-way through the first session, he also tucked the straighter deliveries for singles that kept the score ticking. Vijay was shaping well, and India had the ideal platform, when Shane Watson struck. Sehwag looked set for a hundred, hitting nine fours and a six in his 66, but couldn't capitalise on his good start, and dragged a turning delivery from Krejza back onto his stumps shortly after Dravid fell.
One down in the series, with a highly creditable draw in Delhi following a drubbing in Mohali, Australia were aiming to salvage their bruised pride. Evenly split in pace and spin, but mellowed by another under-performing display from Lee, Australia relied on Krejza to handle the bulk of the bowling. He came in under a degree of pressure and showed enough stomach for a fight after he was mauled in his first three overs. The Tendulkar drops would have hurt, but Laxman's wicket was reward for an encouraging debut.
Lee, steady of line, lacked in speed. Watson lacked variety, and though he mixed up his pace he remained innocuous after removing Vijay. Cameron White, employed only reluctantly, turned his legbreak painfully slowly and never threatened. Johnson obtained disconcerting lift but his tendency to pitch too full made it easy for the batsmen. Over the next four days, Australia will need to be far more productive in their attempt to avoid their first series loss since 2005.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo