First Test

Australia v Sri Lanka

Robert Craddock

At Darwin, July 1, 2, 3, 2004. Australia won by 149 runs. Toss: Sri Lanka. Test debut: S. L. Malinga.

If they couldn't beat Australia at home in March, on purpose-built raging turners, Sri Lanka were odds-on to go belly-up on a soft seamer in Darwin. And so it proved. Rhythmic swing bowler Vaas, who hardly cares about his pace, and explosive newcomer Lasith Malinga, who cares about nothing else, did well to restrict Australia's rusty lineup to barely 200 in either innings. But the difficulties of batting on a slow, seaming, two-toned pitch put even that well out of Sri Lanka's reach.

The state of the pitch caused immense debate. Atapattu chose to field, correctly, but the advantage was nullified because the wicket stayed temperamental throughout. Melbourne curator Tony Ware, who prepared it off-site, said it was never that bad and hinted the batting was dodgier than the deck. But Sri Lankan coach John Dyson said the fact that the biggest total was 207 was candid testimony to its condition and, even when Australia won, their stand-in captain, Gilchrist, said it was not quite up to Test standard: "It was not so much the swing and seam as the variable bounce. All you ask for in a cricket pitch is consistent bounce." If Darwin was to retain its Test status, he added, the issue had to be addressed. After bowling on four pancake-flat wickets against India, however, the home bowlers appreciated favourable conditions like desert explorers sighting a water fountain.

Gilchrist was leading Australia for the third time in Tests, after Ricky Ponting decided to remain in Launceston for his aunt's funeral. He was replaced by Elliott, who had waited five years for a recall after falling from favour in the West Indies in 1998-99. The effect was to give Australia their oldest Test team in more than 71 years, since the infamous Adelaide Bodyline Test of 1932-33.

The main choice facing Gilchrist was how many slips to set to the salivating fast men. Kasprowicz had seven men sweating on the edge during a potent spell on the third day, which became the last.

Before that, Lehmann's two fifties, full of cheeky footwork and fluent improvisation, were worthy of centuries on batting-friendlier days - no Sri Lankan bettered 44. Australia collapsed from 177 for three to 207 all out on the opening day, when the highly respected Vaas appeared to justify the decision to bowl first with five wickets, including Elliott. He had screamed for joy after being told he would replace Ponting - he was only home from Glamorgan for the birth of his son. But he managed a single run in two innings as Vaas removed him, both times, with centimetre-perfect outswingers - left-hander to left-hander - which tickled his groping blade.

Vaas was backed up by Malinga, a quietly spoken pocket-sized dynamo whose action drew comparisons with Jeff Thomson and whose pace rattled Australia with six wickets in the match. "He's certainly different - we haven't faced someone like him for a while," said Lehmann, who fell to him twice. His slingshot action was hard to sight, particularly as he delivered the ball from in front of the umpire. But McGrath said he would be tested on flat wickets, where his lack of size meant he would have to drop the ball extremely short to threaten.

McGrath, playing his first Test for almost a year, had been so tentative in his comeback from ankle surgery that he contemplated retirement. But on this pitch he found rhythm. Five first-innings wickets placated his nerves, cemented his short-term future, and took him past Sir Richard Hadlee and Kapil Dev into fourth place in the world wicket-takers' list. Warne moved ahead of Courtney Walsh into second place, while Gillespie took his 200th Test wicket, a notable milestone in a career interrupted seven times by injury. Between them, they dismissed Sri Lanka for 97, their lowest total against Australia.

Second time round, Australia wobbled to 77 for five before Gilchrist took charge and ensured a target of 312. When Sri Lanka began the chase, it was Kasprowicz's turn. He poured sweat into one side of the ball to make it reverse-swing and picked up seven wickets - easily his best international figures on home soil, and the best by any bowler in Australia-Sri Lanka Tests. Five of them were caught by Gilchrist, equalling the Test record for a bowler-keeper combination (shared by Ian Botham and Bob Taylor, for England in Bombay in 1979-80, and Allan Donald and Mark Boucher, for South Africa at Lord's in 1998). Still hunting Muralitharan's world record, Warne found himself elbowed out of proceedings by the fast men.

Man of the Match: G. D. McGrath. Attendance: 13,355.

© John Wisden & Co