Going into the first Test of the series, there was concern around the stronger suits of both sides. The Indian middle order was coming off a flop from England, but it had three greats in it who were expected to do well. It is no disrespect to the Australian stronger suit - their quicks - but this was expected to be different from England. While England's pace attack had been together for a while, a polished and efficient unit, the Australian fast bowlers were just coming together. The pitches in Australia too are traditionally more to the liking of batsmen than the ones in England.
One Test into the series, the contest of the summer has been set up beautifully. Three great batsmen against three inexperienced bowlers bowling as if they had been up against the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman all their lives, giving nothing away, asking questions persistently. It is easy, and perhaps justified to expect the Indian big three to get the better of a green attack, not all of whom were the first choices but played because of injuries to others. As it turned out, they were up against some high-quality fast bowling.
The Indian batting flopped twice in Melbourne, in the words of their captain MS Dhoni, but it didn't happen easy. Every word of praise that came through from the Indian camp for James Pattinson, Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle was meant and earned. All three found supreme fitness just in time for the Test series, all bowled at good pace, all bowled good lines around off, and exploited all that the pitch had to offer.
It's not as if they were bowling against batsmen woefully out of form. Dravid had had a bumper year, and Tendulkar looked good through the year, which showed in an average of 47. Only Laxman had an ordinary year, but he too had scored a big century in his last series. The Australian fast men got Tendulkar twice and Dravid once after they had got their eye in, which suggests sustained intensity, and Laxman wasn't allowed to get his eye in even once. They also came back from a whirlwind Virender Sehwag start and dropped catches.
Tendulkar tried to hit them off their rhythm in the first innings. There were the upper-cuts, and lofted shots off the offspinner Nathan Lyon. Yet, towards the end of the second day, a disappointing one for Australia until then, Siddle and Pattinson found within themselves spells of quick and probing bowling. Siddle broke through the defences of both Dravid and Tendulkar, but overstepped on one of those occasions.
"The success was built around bowling lengths that would hit the top of the stumps, and lines that were neither wide nor straight, at high pace. Hilfenhaus swung it in the air, and the other two enjoyed the seam movement, either way, off the pitch"
Dravid, admittedly not at the top of his game at MCG, was not given loose deliveries at all. He fought and fought through the adversity until he got a ripper from Hilfenhaus, as early as the first over of the next day.
Laxman is the kind of batsman who needs a couple of boundaries at the start of an innings. Here he was given none. Michael Clarke had the angles worked out well for both the batsmen, but it was Laxman who was especially choked. He played a couple of crisp shots, but found the fielders in the infield. Then he went into his shell, taking 20 deliveries to get off the mark in the first innings, and scoring 1 off 14 in the second.
By the second innings, it was clear the bowlers from the Members End had more assistance from the pitch. Hilfenhaus took the Great Southern Stand End, and bowled a 13-over spell broken only by the lunch break. Not only did he take two wickets for just 32 runs then, he allowed Siddle and Pattinson to charge in alternatively from the more helpful end. By the time India got a sight of what would have been the relief bowler, Lyon, they had effectively lost the match.
The success was built around bowling lengths that would hit the top of the stumps, and lines that were neither wide nor straight, at high pace. Hilfenhaus swung it in the air, and the other two enjoyed the seam movement, either way, off the pitch. If the bowlers can do that, it doesn't matter that they have 160 wickets between, and that they are bowling to batsmen who have 37,000 runs between them. This is not an easy virtue to keep up over eight innings, though.
If Pattinson, Hilfenhaus and Siddle can keep up the same intensity and skill, and whether the three Indian greats can find a way around it - two of them at the same time, and not just one, as Dravid did in England - could decide the fate of this series. The pitches here won't be like the one India found in Durban, where one batting contribution, Laxman's, was enough to win the match. This will veer more towards Cape Town, where India drew because Gautam Gambhir contributed alongside Tendulkar.
Rookies against ramparts is promising to light up the summer. It's 1-0 rookies, now it's up to the veterans to respond.