Chennai: Forget the talk about his ageing reflexes and the poor run of scores against England. Like most India-Australia matches in the past, this series is poised to be a contest between Sachin Tendulkar and Michael Clarke’s battery of fast bowlers. At least, the first glimpses of the battle suggest so.
Be it the honour and respect showered on him by the men from Down Under or the adulation he has received from Sir Don Bradman himself, Sachin has rarely disappointed against the Aussies. The determination and the inspiration are never lacking.
Saturday was another case in point. The Australians batted the entire first session to reach 380 before James Pattinson removed both the openers with a fiery spell. At 12 for two, it looked like the Australians were breathing fire on one of their hard and bouncy pitches back home and not the dry, dusty surface at the Chepauk.
With three slips, a short mid wicket and a short cover in place, their body language was intimidating enough to psyche the batsman out. Not enough to rattle Sachin though.
Displaying courage and presence of mind, he stretched fully to punch the first ball through covers for a boundary. This was followed by a push through point and finally a glance beyond the reach of the fine leg fielder.
Three boundaries off the first four balls were achieved with such assurance and certainty that it changed the complexion of the game. Australia didn’t know what hit them and needed a pause to recuperate.
Pattinson provided another breakthrough when he breached through the well-settled Cheteshwar Pujara’s defence, but by stumps India had recovered to 182 for three. Sachin was unbeaten on 71 and looking set for his sixth century at this venue while Virat Kohli remained undefeated on a well-accomplished half century.
Clarke obviously had a pre-determined ploy of rattling the Indian batting with Pattinson’s pace in short bursts. The 23-year-old bowled two spells of three overs each and Clarke will hope to use him more often on the third day.
With the wicket affording turn and the conditions favouring reverse swing, the visitors tried every trick, including the incoming delivery, to unsettle Sachin, but his 77-run fourth wicket partnership with Virat remained unbroken.
A good line and length backed by express pace does make a huge difference. While the likes of Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar struggled to generate pace and bounce on this wicket, the Australian trio of Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle consistently bowled in the 140-150 kmph bracket.
Murali Vijay, making a return to the Test side after nearly eight months, was done in by the pace, the ball swinging in and taking the inside edge before rattling the stumps.
The prescription glasses didn’t seem to work for Virender Sehwag. After scratching around 28 minutes for his two runs, he was dismissed in a bizarre fashion when defending against Pattinson. The ball bounced inside the crease, and Sehwag just didn’t react as the ball took an eternity to go up and land on top of the leg stump!
Thereafter it was all about Sachin’s focused and relaxed approach for 205 minutes. There weren’t any loose shots and his body seemed alive with the challenge of the moment, enjoying the surge that pressure brings.
Only six boundaries came off the 128 balls he faced. The way he dug out the yorkers and tackled the ones that kept low were a treat to watch.
As Sunil Gavaskar has often suggested, sometimes going back to the grind of domestic cricket does help to sort out the minor technical adjustments. Having quit the limited-overs format, Sachin got the time to work on his game in the Ranji Trophy and the Irani Cup.
The difference showed in his approach. He looked hungry and there was a definite improvement in his footwork since the last series. A slight change in guard from outside leg to more towards the middle stump and a lower back-lift could also have played their part.
While Pujara (44) paid for a momentary lapse in concentration after doing the hard work, Kohli’s wristy ways brought him seven boundaries. The 93-run stand for the third wicket had laid the foundation for Kohli’s flamboyance to flourish.
The morning session was one of toil and frustration for the Indians as Clarke galloped to 130 and the Australian tail wagged till an extended lunch session. Siddle contributed a valuable 19 from 94 balls and the last wicket pair of Pattinson and Lyon stitched together 16 runs.
Ashwin brought an end to the innings to return career-best figures of seven for 103 but the Indians’ defensive mindset and Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s reluctance towards Harbhajan Singh remained the talking point. Also, Kumar Dharmasena’s refusal to give the leg before verdicts which left Harbhajan disgusted at one stage.
By close, though, the talk had diverted to Sachin’s exploits on his lucky ground.