January 17, 2008

Attack hurts Australia

Waugh's over-confidence led to his team's streak of 16 ending in Kolkata in 2001, similar over-confidence from Ponting's side could have the same result in Perth in 2008



Ducking out: Mike Hussey failed to score for the first time in Tests as Australia's aggression back-fired © Getty Images
 

Australia's aggression is prevalent throughout all aspects of their play, from the snipes in the cordon to the bowling lengths and unchanging attitude of the batsmen in any conditions. Two results of the outlook were on show as they slipped dangerously behind after giving up a 118-run first-innings deficit, with Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds attacking successfully when a similar wild approach failed for the top order.

These batsmen refuse to graft and were undone by some fine swing bowling during a swift twist to an addictive contest. "Playing ugly" is not in Australia's phrasebook, particularly since Justin Langer left. For the past decade, under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, the method has driven the team to unprecedented success, but an approach that provides so many highs can also lead to record-ending troughs.

It was Waugh's over-confidence that led to his streak of 16 ending in Kolkata in 2001 and there was an eerie sense it was starting to happen again as Australia fell to 5 for 61 trying to overhaul India's 330. The pitch had become ideal for batting, but Waugh's warning - "When you least expect it, cricket comes back and bites you" - was ignored and a rash of extravagant drives led to trouble that even Ponting's team might not be able to escape.

Australian recoveries are as predictable as extreme summer conditions in Perth and there was an expectation everything would be alright. In the second Test they had been revived from 6 for 134 and this time the heat of the situation and the ground - it peaked at 41C - would surely be cooled by someone. The contenders must now wait for day three.

Helped by a change in breeze from the desert to the ocean, Australia were freshened during a 102-run partnership in 104 balls between Gilchrist and Symonds. The ball stopped moving and the bowlers tired, allowing the batsmen to flourish using a strategy that didn't work for their upper-order team-mates. However, the side needed more than two half-centuries and glances at the batsmen's indiscretions will be magnified if this is where the winning run ends.

None of top five showed enough willingness for wariness against a ball that moved teasingly but not in unmanageable arcs. Phil Jaques, Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke all flashed hard at balls they really should have left and their edges were accepted gleefully. A younger version of Hussey, playing here for Western Australia or representing an English county, would have waited and watched before attempting a full-strength drive outside off stump to a ball curling away. Having been in touching distance of Bradman over the past two years, his confidence is almost as high as his average. He left with his first Test duck.

Jaques, who will always be determined to muscle, chased an even wider outswinger after Chris Rogers' Test entry had ended in a doubtful lbw. The pace didn't slow after the first three wickets fell for 14 in eight overs before lunch, but Ponting could not be criticised. There was not much he could do to avoid a sharp legcutter from Ishant Sharma that also surprised him with bounce, clipping the bat on the way to Rahul Dravid at third slip.

Clarke was culpable against Ishant an over after Symonds was dropped on 3 when slashing to Sachin Tendulkar. It is hard to believe things could have been so much better for India, although there will be no regrets unless the advantage slips. They are finally on top after eyeballing the Australians over the past two weeks.

The home bowlers are now responsible for the size of Australia's chase and by stumps the visitors' lead had reached an imposing 170. If India can maintain their day-two dominance the Australians will need a fourth-innings chase that is greater than the Invincibles of Headingley in 1948. A victory of that magnitude is one thing missing from their stunning collection, but a 17th win is a long way away. Two days ago nobody expected it, but the path set by Waugh will probably be followed unless two world records are set.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo