Friday, 13 January 2012

Cracks, Quicks and India Get A Warnering

If Australia's decision to take four quicks into the Perth was crazy, then India's deserves long term confinement in a suitable facility. Ignoring what they do best, the Indians dropped their second highest run maker of the series, off spinner Ravi Ashwin and added instead debutante Vinay Kumar. Its now a long, long tail ... longer than Tolkein. As said in the preview, the choice shouldn't have been three or four quicks but one or two spinners.

To lose the toss and be sent in by a side which also has put all its eggs in the fast bowlers basket would have been a bad enough complication but when the wicket has the trademark Perth cracks and the extra green tinge which has been fostered this season on home wickets, then you are well behind before the first ball. Fourteen balls later, Virender Sehwag starved of strike, played a limp push at the perfect outswinger from Ben Hilfenhaus - a serial offender in that delivery since his recall - low but straight to Ricky Ponting at second slip. He may have had more chance had he been smiting but then again, when it pitches middle and leg and passes a foot outside off stump, only the best would get the edge on it.

Just another brick from the wall
With Ryan Harris and Ben Hilfenhaus rested in order for Michael Clarke to hail their pace, Siddle and the resurrected Mitchell Starc had their turn. Rahul Dravid tried hard for ten overs but his form in Australia has been a long way below his own standards. He looked uncertain coming forward, making it only halfway on his best of efforts and was unbalanced in any forward movement. In the end, a full ball on his pads from Siddle had him mumbling across his crease, going nowhere and only his pads made contact and then back onto his stumps again: bowled seven times in nine Test innings. Starc only bowled three overs and whilst some deliveries were swinging in and dangerous, such as a close lbw against Dravid, too many were wide of the stumps and wasted on either side.

Sachin Tendulkar came out on fire, with three glorious drives from Siddle. Two screamed back past him, one technically catchable but only if Siddle was Sobers incarnate. The other whistled through the covers. Gambhir, who had played and missed outside off stump a little less regularly, had started to tuck the ball away to leg and push through cover gaps but mostly off the back foot. Whenever the ball was full he looked vulnerable but there was no doubting his perseverance.

Harris and Hilfenhaus came back half an hour before lunch and batting looked harder. With fifteen minutes to go until lunch, India had weathered all the disadvantages and shared the session but in consecutive overs, they dipped deep back into trouble. Harris pushed a fullish ball back into Tendulkar and he was rightly lbw, protecting his leg stump; then Hilfenhaus trained Gambhir into edging to Haddin and India went to lunch with the Colt From Old Regret Syndrome at 4-73.

Virat Kohli made 44
After lunch, Kohli who always seems to be playing for his place and VVS Laxman, who lately should be, were confronted by the usual suspects who all took their turn to pass by outside edges but despite that inconvenience, the pair fought to revive the Indian innings. Gasping for air before the break, it was asthmatic going for the pair. Kohli looks better with every innings in Australia and he unfolded some outstanding strokes through mid wicket and square leg. His forward defence was as good as anything Tendulkar has shown so far this series whilst at the other end, Laxman sat on the crease, squared up and uncomfortable but unwilling to yield. Starc bowled with much better control and had his inswinger bending late and with four fast men, Clarke could afford to manage the youngster with a soft touch and short spells so that the batsmen could never got on top of any wayward bowling. There was little of it from Starc in this middle session.

Again, just before the break, both Kohli and Laxman were sent back by the man who dreams the impossible dream, Peter Siddle. Holding a ball back slightly, he had Kohli driving a little early and when his bat reached forward of his front pad it rotated, spewing the ball to David Warner who held another good catch, low at point. Siddle sat low into his haunches, at first appearing to be experiencing an emotional overload, but when in his next over, he bent a leg cutter off the pitch from off stump and had Laxman caught by Clarke at first slip and slumped again to the deck. He bowled out the last four balls to tea but was clearly in distress as the players began to leave the field, his neck appearing to be the problem. Even with the last minute wickets falling, India at least squared the session.

Hilfenhaus took another 4
Starc and Hilfenhaus only needed 25 minutes after tea to remove the long, inert tail. Kumar, Khan, Sharma and Yudav added only 14 between them and that was more than they looked worth. You reap what you sow.

Hilfenhaus and Siddle got the bulk of the wickets but all four bowled well.

During the innings break, closer views showed that cracks in the pitch, identified before the start of play, had widened even in six hours and around them, the grass coverage was thick. That's a nasty combination and in the first over from Zaheer Khan, one jumped and cut away and the next bounced twice before Dhoni got a grab on it.

Amazingly, the WACA continues the trend of juicy wickets in Tests this summer, despite the venue. About fifteen months ago, the then Australian Captain, Ricky Ponting, spoke strongly about the poor wickets that Sheffield Shield was being played on. It was allowing average fast bowlers dominance and not providing the well spring of batsmen to wear the Bagging Green. Yet, this summer, the pitches have been green - Bellerive the most verdant wicket for twenty five years - and have seamed in support of that old swinger Billy McDermott's "keep it full and swing it" policy and a host of those fast bowlers now rotate in and out of the Australian side, taking wickets whenever they see fit. Last week, the new batsmen failed while the old timers scored 1 for a billion.

Oh well, you can't have everything.

It didn't seem to make any difference to Dave Warner and Ed Cowan. A strange combination from the  extreme ends of the Australian class and education systems and yet to fire together. That changed in the last session. The fifty came in the 7th over and Warner's own in 36 balls. Warner cut and drove through the off and turned powerfully off his legs, all for repeating fours. He welcomed Kumar to Test cricket, hitting him as clean a blow for six over long on as he is likely to suffer. Zaheer went for 14 in his 4th over and 13 in his 6th: Cowan mistreating him the first time and Warner the second. In between, a Warner edge failed to carry to Tendulkar when it died in "that crack". Yudav returned after early punishment and Warner smashed him through mid off but was nearly runout backing up at the bowlers end when he slipped over.

Ishant Sharma got his first bowl at Warner in the 13th but overs before hand, the pair had clashed verbally in between deliveries. It looked heated and required an Aleem Dah intervention. Warner, a lad who values the last word, sent Sharma's fourth delivery ten rows beyond the boundary fence. The fence itself sits a few metres past the legal boundary. It was a big, big hit but sweet and clean as well as long.

The 100 was up after 14 overs ... that's 84 balls ... and was raised by two fine shots from Cowan, the last a push through mid wicket which raced across the turf.

Dave Warner launches a six
With half an hour to go and a Warner century looking a certainty, he played too early hooking at Yadav and was felled by a crack to the side of his helmet. Without the hard hat, it might have killed him. As Angry Andrew McNeill might have said, "bloody batsmen have all the advantages." The big left arm quick of Waratahs and Armidale fame hated helmets and the batsmen that wore them. Warner rose from the ground and slapped the next ball over point and pulled the following through mid wicket, both for four. It would have been three consecutive fours when a seagull did what none of the Indian fielders had managed but lived to tell a groggy tale.

Two overs later, Warner raised his second Test hundred and the fourth fastest of all time in just 69 balls (13 fours and 3 sixes) with a booming six over wide mid on from Kumar, just returned to the bowling crease. To think, it was a discussion with Virender Sehwag a few years ago on the boundary's edge at an IPL game, that convinced him to have a run at playing Test cricket. Sehwag, always the professional, would have hated the onslaught but marvelled at the achievement.

Next over, Cowan was caught from the glove down the leg side off Sharma but was given not out and thanks to their obstinate refusal, India had no technological recourse.

As in Sydney, the game was over by tea but the doin's after that were pretty special. Now if Shaun Marsh can get runs and Haddin can shut up, things will be perfect.