A wanderer comes home
Given that he once crossed the width of a continent to enhance his prospects of wearing the baggy green, it's perhaps no surprise that Simon Katich has had an itinerant career. Once one of the brightest batting prospects in the land, he didn't establish himself in the side till he was 28, but soon after his 30th birthday, he was shunted to the sidelines. Pura Cup bowlers bore the brunt of his frustration for a couple of seasons, and but for an injury that ruled Matthew Hayden out of the Caribbean tour earlier this year, the recall might never have come.
Breaking into the Australian batting line-up has been as difficult as breaching Fort Knox in recent seasons. Back in 2001, Justin Langer, who had batted mostly at No.3, replaced Michael Slater as opener at The Oval. With the series won, it really wasn't a gamble, but what it did was pave the way for the greatest opening combination of the modern era, statistically superior even to Greenidge and Haynes.
Katich earned his spurs as a middle-order bat with Western Australia and New South Wales. But with Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke unlikely to yield a vacancy in the middle, Katich knew he had to seize his Caribbean moment to revive a career that had never lived up to the rich promise he showed while saving Steve Waugh's farewell Test with sparkling innings of 125 and 77 not out.
Centuries as opener at North Sound and Bridgetown kept him in the squad for India, but till Friday, his series had been a tale of squandered starts. A solid 66 in Bangalore was followed by a tortuous second-innings 34, and there was then a bizarre dismissal on the stroke of tea as Australia sought to save the game in Mohali. In Delhi, he batted beautifully for 64 before being beaten by a prodigious leg break from Amit Mishra. There were signs there though that he was once again playing with the freedom and aggressive intent that had made him an integral part of Australia's series triumph in 2004.
At the old ground in Nagpur where the series was clinched four years ago, Katich had walked in at No. 3 in the second innings and batted with a fluency that rattled the Indians. Few have ever played Anil Kumble as decisively or as well, and his 99 spanned just 157 deliveries. It was a gorgeous innings, marred only by a sudden attack of nerves and the resulting leg-before dismissal.
The new venue might be miles removed from the old one, but cricket in India's geographical heartland is clearly to Katich's liking. When he came out to bat shortly before tea, there was no element of diffidence despite the stunning collapse that Jason Krejza's off breaks had engineered minutes earlier. Even though Mahendra Singh Dhoni opened the bowling with Harbhajan Singh at one end, Australia's openers trusted their instincts and got the rollicking start that's so essentially against the new ball.
Katich got going with a wonderful drive through mid-off, and even the scuffed-up and soft older ball didn't halt his momentum in a final session that had more than its share of lovely strokes. His footwork to the spinners was exceptional, and he drove and worked the ball off his pads with immaculate timing. Being a left-hander clearly helped, with the offspinners unable to make use of the rough that would have been so dangerous for a right-hander.
Katich never flagged though, and India were looking bereft of ideas by the time he and Michael Hussey exchanged pats on the back before walking off. For such a serene innings, the rate at which he scored was astonishing. His first 60 runs encompassed just 66 balls, Sehwag pace, and a note of circumspection crept in only as stumps drew near. Sehwag, the standout spinner in Delhi, once again posed the trickiest questions, but Australia would have been encouraged by the relative ease with which Katich tackled both Harbhajan and Mishra.
He has played 12 of his 30 Tests against India and aggregated 952 runs at 56. A soft-spoken man prone to the sudden outburst, he probably won't go so far as to ask: "Can I play you every week?", but India will most certainly be aware that one more session of sweetly timed strokes could do serious harm to their ambitions of reversing the result of four years ago. After the sort of convoluted journey that another left-hander, Sourav Ganguly, could relate to, the wanderer now has a fixed address. Top man.