Gilchrist and Lehmann set Sri Lanka stiff target after McGrath shines

Australia 207 and 201 (Gilchrist 80, Lehmann 51, Malinga 4-42) lead Sri Lanka 97 (McGrath 5-37) by 311 runs

Halfway through last week's warm-up game against the Sri Lankans, an unusually jolly Glenn McGrath told the assembled hacks that it "felt like the old days" out there. The following evening, things were looking even dandier: "It's the best I've bowled in two-and-a-half-years." Now, it might be timely at this stage to point out that McGrath had taken only two wickets in 38 overs for the match; back then, it was more like a whisper. Today it can be shouted out loud. The maestro of millimetres is back.

In fact, for the first three hours today it felt like swing bowling - recently pronounced by Wasim Akram, that grandest of past masters, to be an extinct art - was back. In the morning Sri Lanka lost their last seven wickets, and with them the ascendancy, for 54 runs. In 22 minutes after lunch Australia lost their first three - Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden and Matthew Elliott - for 14. Each of them fenced or prodded at gentle out-dippers; each offered comfortable catching practice behind the wicket.

For the last three hours Darren Lehmann and Adam Gilchrist, with cool heads and decisive footwork, reasserted some semblance of batting dominance. Sri Lanka's target ballooned to an intimidating, though not entirely ungettable, 312. So long as Lehmann or Gilchrist were at the crease, it was as if they were playing on a different planet.

Certainly McGrath looked a different bowler to the stunted "Pigeon" of recent vintage. In his third over of the morning he uncoiled a gorgeous legcutter, pitching just short of a length and fizzing away just enough to elicit a faint edge from Thilan Samaraweera. In his next he uprooted the nightwatchman Nuwan Zoysa, swishing superfluously across the line, with one that pitched around leg and didn't do much at all (6 for 51). As ever with McGrath, it was half-a-dozen pinpoint deliveries - rather than one unplayable one - that got him his man.

His fifth over produced no wicket but one evil bouncer, which followed Russel Arnold's throat and had him leaping up and away like he'd been shot at. It was clocked at only 132.3kph, the same as every other McGrath delivery give or take a couple of decimal points. But the line was impeccable, the menace unmistakable, the outcome inevitable.

Sure enough, in his sixth over he deliberately floated down a shorter, wider, tamer ball which Arnold, flirting too far away from his body, edged to Elliott at third slip (7 for 59). McGrath held the red Kookaburra high in the air and saluted the crowd, a five-wicket tradition he inaugurated at the start of the 2001 Ashes tour, and one he had last indulged in 28 long months ago.

The drop-in pitch, not unexpectedly, was a hot talking point. Lehmann, who has batted more assuredly and inventively on it than anyone else, remarked overnight that it was not a "normal" wicket. By batsman-friendly modern standards he was probably right; the pace has been vaguely sluggish, the bounce occasionally uneven, the sideways movement substantial and it has a slightly mottled look about it.

An equally relevant observation might be that the bowlers have bowled better than the batsmen have batted. McGrath, in particular, looked higher and more aggressive in his action; the perceptible stutter that has cluttered his delivery stride had vanished. He got in close to the stumps. He followed through. He inched it away from both the leftand right-handers, sometimes a bit, sometimes a lot and invariably late. His masterful execution of Arnold brought up his 435th Test wicket, surpassing Kapil Dev as the second most prolific fast man in history. Courtney Walsh's 519, miles away a week ago, suddenly looms as a distinct possibility.

Of the Australian batsmen, only Lehmann and Gilchrist bettered 16 as they sought to build on a lead of 110 after Sri Lanka's eventual capitulation for 97. Elliott's failure was especially regrettable, failing to get to the pitch of a Chaminda Vaas outswinger for the second time and edging behind. Tallies of 1 and 0 completed a depressing comeback after five years on the outer. Sadly, with Ricky Ponting expected to play at Cairns, another long absence for this intelligent, gifted and desperately unlucky left-hander now beckons.

Lehmann, plodding out with Australia a decidedly queasy 3 for 14, again made batting look easy. He jumped off the mark with his beloved square-squirt over gully and hoisted his fifty, in only 55 balls, the same way. Only Lasith Malinga, the vivacious slinging tearaway, made him look jumpy. Malinga's first ball of the innings spat at his throat and it was no great shock when Lehmann, waddling characteristically across the crease, found himself out of position and edged to the keeper.

His exit for 51, out of Australia's 5 for 77, brought in Adam Gilchrist, whose apparent strategy was to be there for a good time and not necessarily a long one. His first ball was walloped crossbat over square leg's head for a couple. In the first over after tea he snicked one boundary through a scattered slips cordon, then thwacked two more before the over was out, one square and another straight.

Realising that batting wasn't so tricky after all, Gilchrist now satisfied himself with deftly dispatching the bad balls - a couple of loose-armed hooks, one trademark flick over the keeper's head - and keeping out the decent ones. He enjoyed game support, dominating stands of 37 with Simon Katich, 27 with the crowd favourite Jason Gillespie, and 47 with Michael Kasprowicz.

As the late-afternoon shadows descended, Gilchrist hazarded an implausible leg-bye, was sent back by Kasprowicz and run out by an alert Mahela Jayawardene at slip for 80 (9 for 201). Kasprowicz, heaving maniacally to give Malinga a deserved fourth wicket, followed suit. Thirty wickets had fallen in two days. An intriguing climax awaits.

It is an odd crowd in Darwin, a peculiar hush enveloping the grassy banks, and not a terribly clued-up one. A ground attendant who applied some sawdust to the bowlers' run-ups was today cheered all the way off; yet when Vaas ambled back to fine leg on Thursday, in the middle of the spell that sabotaged Australia's first innings, he received barely a handclap. Still, more than 4000 people - in a town of 100,000 - came along for the second day in a row. As venue experiments go, it is well worth persevering with.

As for the pitch, the only real hitch would seem to be the extra dew and moisture in the air because of the 9.30am start. The reason behind the early beginning, and here comes the crazy bit, is the need to tiptoe around Channel 9's other TV commitments. The aim is to squeeze in a supposedly high-rating game show before the 6 o'clock news chimes on the east coast. This same supposedly high-rating game show was recently axed in favour of a miniature version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which was itself axed a fortnight later, only to be replaced by the original supposedly high-rating game show in a jazzed-up one-hour format.

It's all rubbish. They should start the cricket at 10.30 and be done with it.