Bombay Duck learns to fly
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It's almost five years since Australia lost a Test match of any consequence on home soil, testament to their dominance and a damning indictment of teams who have come here having thrown in the towel somewhere over the Indian Ocean or Straits of Malacca. On that occasion, it was Dean Headley, now a mere footnote in cricket history, who engineered a dramatic Australian collapse in pursuit of a meagre fourth-innings target. Today, the wrecker-in-chief was Ajit Agarkar, whose sole claim to Test match fame until now was the sobriquet of Bombay Duck, bequeathed him after a remarkable run of seven zeroes on the trot against Australia.
Going into this Test match, his 18th, Agarkar took his wickets every 14 overs. And coming into this innings, his 41 victims had come at a cost of 45.95 apiece, not exactly the stuff of legend. The only encouragement he would have got would have been from his previous outing here, four years ago, when he accounted for the Waugh twins and Greg Blewett in a spirited second-innings burst of 3 for 43 - his best in Tests.
From the moment he was given the new ball this morning, though, Agarkar was a man transformed. The swing confounded Matthew Hayden early on, while both Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting were sent for an early lunch. Then, with Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar getting the ball to rip off the pitch, he was banished to the outfield for a spell. But when he came back, it was with a renewed sense of purpose.
The frail frame can be misleading, because at his sharpest, Agarkar can match anyone in the current Australian XI for pace. Today, he used his head just as much as speed off the pitch. The short ball, which can get you a hiding to nothing against Australia if overused, was used sparingly and judiciously, and a well-set Simon Katich swallowed the bait whole. The tailenders were a parkland stroll after that. Agarkar pitched the ball up, and batsmen intent on aggression did the rest.
Spare a thought too for Rahul Dravid. Having batted over nine hours in baking heat, he was still alert and agile enough to pull off one of the great slip catches as Damien Martyn slashed at a legbreak from Tendulkar. Tendulkar's exultant reaction told a tale too. As at Kolkata, he contributed nothing with the bat, but the legspun assortments ensured that he could still be a valuable performer for the side.
You have to question the Australian approach with the bat. Late in the day, India's openers showed that there were few demons in the pitch. Australia batted as though they had seen a premonition of bad pitch behaviour, when in reality, there really wasn't much wrong with it.
The malaise started at the very top. There was a touch of the desperate to Steve Waugh's innings of 42. All that was lacking was a headband with the rising sun on it, and cries of "Banzai". Tomorrow, when we sift through the memories of a hitherto unforgettable Test, Waugh's all-or-nothing approach will come in for intense scrutiny.
Gilchrist should be exempt from criticism simply because he played as he always does, and you don't knock a guy who averages 60, no matter how helter-skelter his methods. But as a team, Australia seem to have forgotten the art of grinding out a result. In their effort to shine like the sun, day in and day out, they will have to face the occasional total eclipse.
Gung-ho batting cost them the Kolkata Test in 2001, and from what transpired today, no lessons have been learnt. Sometimes, it pays to lie back on the ropes and absorb a few blows like Muhammad Ali did in his prime, rather than try to bring down tall buildings with every punch like Joe Frazier did. Hollywood or bust has been Australia's mantra in recent seasons, but instead of bright city lights, all they'll be staring at tonight will be desert darkness.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. He will be following India throughout this series.