At Melbourne, December 26-29, 2011. Australia won by 122 runs. Toss: Australia. Test debut: E. J. M. Cowan.
A lot of talk these days is about crumbly batting techniques and the mini-earthquakes induced by a speck of grey in the sky or green in the pitch. Batsmen's heads wobble, their feet stick, their bats hang crooked and far away, their hearts jellify, their memories of what they should be doing fail them, their interest in proceedings seems to drift - and because India's batsmen bungled each of these basics slightly more palpably than Australia's, an engrossing match ran away from them.
On both sides of the fault line, there was fretting. Unsighted by 70,000 pairs of eyes on Boxing Day morning, two old Australian batsmen shook hands. One, Justin Langer, did not let go - wanting the other, Dean Jones, to say sorry for saying: "Justin has not improved anyone in the team during his time as batting coach."
Jones did what he came for: he presented Ed Cowan, Australia's straggly-bearded debutant, with a green cap. Last Boxing Day, Cowan had sat couch-bound watching England detonate Australia for 98. A "train wreck" he called it - and switched the TV off at teatime. Clouds were blamed. Under clouds again, Clarke won the toss and Cowan made good use of a stroke he'd perhaps read about batsmen employing during the first hour of a Test: the leave-alone. Sixth ball of the innings, Cowan put bat on ball; with his elevated stance, not unlike an Innisfail cane-cutter's, he'd scarcely laid bat on pitch.
Once the hour was up he unveiled another dust-caked jewel, a late cut off Yadav, whose springy outswingers made for the day's trickiest deliveries but loosest overs. Warner showed flashes of uncharacteristic care, delicately peeling a hand off his handle to ensure a leg-side clip stayed down. So ravenously did Ponting yank and pull balls from off stump and wider that over-keenness, not old age, seemed a nearly plausible explanation for the three times he fell over and the one time he hooked, missed and got sconed.
Hussey, first ball, was adjudged out - irrevocably - caught off his sleeve. This solved the sports editors' five-day dilemma (correction, four: no surprise) about how to fill their sections. And the more the numpties responsible - the Indians - for disallowing the DRS were portrayed as conniving Lex Luthors, rather than sensible sceptics of guesstimating computers, the catchier a story it was. Ultimately, the injustices cut both ways. The real shock controversy came from the man whose 68-over 68 felt like a refreshing blast of obduracy. "That first hour," Cowan declared, "I was looking just to leave well."
Back to the wilderness was the leave-alone despatched next morning. Australia's tail, clumping cheerfully, ran up 333. Then Gambhir fished aimlessly at Hilfenhaus in the fashion once stereotypical of fresh-off-the-plane Indian batsmen when tours of Australia were once-a-decade events, if that. For Sehwag, dropped three times, fours came in twos, a boundary one ball resulting in the bowler overcompensating next ball - and being hacked away in a subtly different direction. Consider Lyon, the spinner: Sehwag scooted to 51 with a slap over Lyon's left shoulder, to 55 with a blow over his right.
Next in was Tendulkar. Has an Asian in Australia ever been greeted with such longing? The clapping lasted his whole walk to the middle, Tendulkar swaying imaginary bumpers as he went, the rest of us savouring the mysterious softness of a near-deafening Tendulkar ovation - velvety, almost, as if reverence lived in those clapping hands.
Here was bliss, and under a blue sky too, Tendulkar airing most of the textbook's noblest shots plus an over-the-slips upper-cut you won't find in there. When not hitting balls hard he stopped them so dead it was dread-inspiring. Dravid, his partner, was frequently out-speeded by the ball, only for his late-plunging bat to rescue him; a slowing maestro, maybe, but still with a certain feline felicity. Once, upon screwing a miscued drive towards mid-on, Dravid flipped his bat in the air and caught it one-handed. "Did you see that?" murmured anyone who saw it.
During this lull between exploding stumps, the cameras that pipe the pictures on to the big screen were hijacked by ex-Paul Hogan Show cameramen - no other possibility stacks up - and began trawling the crowd for women. A formula ensued. Two blondes: cheers. Two non-blondes: boos. This represented a variation on a new Cricket Australia-approved innovation, Kiss Cam, whereby a giant red heart encircles a couple, and the couple - sometimes male and female; sometimes not; sometimes strangers - are expected to pash. One woman instead stuck a middle finger at the camera and blogged about it, saying there's more to cricket-watching than donning watermelon hats and building beer-cup Eiffel Towers. "We go, astoundingly, to watch the cricket."
Siddle's searing in-ducker, four balls from the close of day two, tore out Tendulkar's off bail. Dravid promptly lost his, to Hilfenhaus, second ball of day three. The match was going in waves. Seven Indian wickets before lunch - carelessness vied with listlessness for chief wicket-taking honours - were followed by four Australian wickets straight after. Warner, Marsh and Clarke dragged balls on, their stumps at point A, their heads at point B, their hands and the ball way over at point F. Seventy-eight was the lead. Ponting and Hussey salvaged things in ones and twos, 16 in a row, unbroken by boundaries or threes. Ingenious it was, if scarcely enough, although Pattinson and Hilfenhaus glided and swatted 43 for the last wicket. The total attendance swelled to 189,347, the biggest between these teams in this country. India set chase for what logic said was a gettable 292.
Logic, alas, was sprinting three blocks ahead of technical nous. India's frailties in this match can be told either in numbers - six men bowled, nine caught behind the wicket, two dollies to short leg - or words. Dravid, mythically unbowlable, was now bowled three times, once by each Australian quick if you included Siddle's second-afternoon no-ball. Sehwag, who even on his 300 days middles only some balls, seemed spooked by the ones he didn't. For Laxman, read lax: scoreless for 19 balls first up, he was out playing (badly) his favourite leg-side flick in the second innings. After that garlanded bunch, the tail went down yahooing.
Australia's pace trio had a whiff of Craig McDermott, their new bowling coach, in his eating-Poms-for-breakfast pomp. They bowled big-hearted (see McDermott circa '85) and irresistibly full (McDermott circa '90-91). Pattinson would lope back, a suburban boy's strides, laconic, Australian-like, trying three successive bumpers or a bit of chat or pulling faces or else unloading flat-out fast. Hilfenhaus's five-for, his first, ended an 18-Test wait. The pitch was good, verging on perfect. Balls bounced and moved; batsmen hit freely straight and square.
Cross-scheduled each evening, from the second day onwards, were KFC Twenty20 Big Bash League matches in three cities. There, sixes were expected, and duly clobbered, though none like the one seen here, second day, first ball after tea, when Siddle bowled and Tendulkar dipped at the knees, letting the ball creep up the face of his bat, watching it fly over the slips, over the fence, a moment of just-right technique and it summoned from the crowd the just-right response - one second of total silence.