Alas! after four days of see-saw battle at MCG, it is back to square one for India, as in-spite of dominating some sessions, the famed Indian batting line-up surrendered meekly against a spirited, but inexperienced Australian attack. Indian fans, who came in big numbers for the first test to support their beloved team, must have trudged back to their hotel rooms grim-faced after watching India blow away yet another chance to tame the Aussies in their own den. This was a test match India should have won instead they gifted a nice Christmas present to Clarke by losing the test.
So what went wrong for a team that has a formidable batting line-up made up of players with tons of experience? How could have a captain supposedly with a midas touch Dhoni, lose the plot? Finally, can India stage a fight back in the series?
Without wasting anymore time, let us look at five key points that decided the outcome of the first test.
Not fully utilizing the chance to bowl first
In my last blog, I had said that if India win the toss, they should bowl first. Surprisingly, Clarke won the toss and elected to bat first in helpful conditions for the bowlers. It was like a gift for the Indian seamers from the opposition captain. In the truncated first session of the first day, Indian seamers bowled well, but for some reason, decided to bang it short to Punter and Cowan in the second session. Cowan and Punter took advantage of it and helped Australia to recover from being two down at lunch.
Not finishing off Australia's innings
Once Punter and Cowan got out, Australia were in a real spot of bother at 214 for 6, but just like what happened during the tours of Emerald Isle, South Africa and England, India let the lower-order batsmen to make merry as Australia finally finished with a healthy score of 333.
Collapse after a good start
At 214 for 2, it looked very rosy for India. The pitch had flattened out, the inexperienced Australian bowling attack looked short of ideas, legends of Indian batting line-up, Dravid and SRT were batting in the middle and a score of 500 looked possible. It took though, just one fine delivery from the never say die Siddle to throw a knock out punch at India, as SRT was cleaned up by Siddle. Once the great man was gone, the rest including Dravid crumbled like a pack of cards on the third day.
From nowhere, Hilfy suddenly became Australia's hero. Yes, Hilfy's lengths were a lot straighter than what we saw in the Ashes yet, the Indian batsmen have to be blamed for chasing almost every outswinger that was bowled. The likes of Kohli and Dhoni played like they were holding the bat for the first time. Sorry Kohli, cricket isn't just about opening your mouth to sledge someone, but it is also about doing well with a bat in hand in test cricket.
Dhoni's bizarre tactics
At 27 for 4, India had Australia bleeding, but instead of going in for the kill, they sat back to watch the veterans struggling for runs, Huss and Punter do well. When OZ were eight down, they again had a chance to comeback into the match, but for the zillionth time, we saw the tail wag against India. Now, if setting a negative field for a batsman like Huss looks defensive, then what can I say about setting defensive fields for tailenders like Hilfy and Pattinson? Dhoni has done this time and again yet, hasn't learnt from his past mistakes.
Yes, Dhoni comes across as a very good man manager, but some of his tactics leaves a lot to be desired. In-fact, nowadays I can compare him with only Vettori. Vettori was one of those captains, who seemed to believe that every-time a cricketer smashes a boundary, he should spread the field. We saw that in India in 10/11, when it took just one boundary from Harby for Vettori to spread the field. No wonder, India escaped from what seemed like a certain defeat. Coming back to Dhoni, if he continues to captain the Indian side in the same vein, in the near future, even Chris Martin may score a few!
The Indian bowlers too missed a trick against Pattinson as they lost their patience and tried to experiment with their lengths. Pattinson has a bit of batting ability, but is still a tailender. One could see that when he was shifting his weight onto the back-foot and was standing legside off the ball yet, was trying to play the drive. A clear indication to the Indian seamers that they should just keep angling it across him.
When tailenders come into bat, modern day bowlers seem to experiment too much. Bowl couple of short deliveries at their throats, or the occasional yorker to crush their toes, but don't forget the old fashioned line and length. Yes, they will play and miss a few times and slog a few, but they won't have the patience or the technique to survive for long.
Indian batting fails again
Of course, the final nail in the coffin was India's famed batting line-up again tumbling like nine pins, when up against consistent bowling from the Aussies. The fact though was, it wasn't like they were facing the relentless brutality from Younis, the metronomic McGrath, or the magician with a ball in hand Akram, but an inexperienced bunch of hard-working enthusiastic seamers.
If Sehwag again perished to one of those wafts outside the off-stump, Gambir looked like a rabbit in the headlights. These days, Gambir looks very tentative and continues to hang back which isn't a good sign at all. We all know that he is a gutsy player, but at present, India seem to be already one down before their innings starts.
Among the rest of the batsmen, Dravid was again bowled and what made it worse was, he left a gap between bat and pad. I can't remember Dravid doing that for a long-time, maybe I have to go as far back as the series in the Kiwiland in 02/03, when Bond castled him with Dravid leaving a slight gap between bat and pad. This time though, it seemed like the gap was good enough for a truck to go through it. I still expect Dravid to comeback to form. Dravid perhaps has to stop worrying too much about his technique, as when he does that, he invariably makes mistakes. In 99/00 in OZ, Dravid continuously struggled against McGrath, as he seemed to be worrying too much about where his off-stump was and was he moving his feet.
The little master looked good in both innings, but nowadays, he is a bit more vulnerable against the full swinging delivery. It has to be said though, that it would take a brave man to bet against SRT doing well in this series. I also see that there are questions marks over Very Very Special Laxman, but in his defence, it can be said that MCG isn't a track that suits his style of batting. On truer wickets of WACA, Sydney and Adelaide, I expect him to do well. Another fact to worry about for the Indian team is, their captain Dhoni isn't just tactically looking clueless, but he has gone downhill as a batsman too.
Can India stage a fightback in the series?
Now, the question on everyone's lips is, can India comeback in the series by winning at Sydney? Yes, of course they can do it, as they have the class and the experience to win at Sydney.The Indian players though, have to remember that test cricket is about doing well over five days and not just about dominating for some of the sessions like they did at MCG.
It wasn't like there were no positives to think of for India in the first test, as their bowling line-up did well. Before the series started, everyone thought that India's attack won't be penetrative enough to take twenty wickets, but at MCG, India showed that they have the firepower to take twenty wickets.
The spearhead of India's attack, Zaheer didn't look at his best, but with the old ball, he was again the king. From India's point of view, it was also great to see Zaheer bowling lots of overs in the first test.
Yadav may not be Bracewell in terms of control, but he surprised the batsmen for pace with the help of a quick arm action and got it to move the ball both ways, Sharma too bowled reasonably well in the first innings, though was a bit unlucky not to pick up a wicket. The spinner Ashwin may not have bowled with great control, but he has the variations to trouble the Aussies.
Let us now think about the next test at Sydney. When it comes to playing at Sydney, one of the factors to consider will be the pitch, as in recent times, it has been a bit of mystery. The last two tests played at Sydney were affected by rain and as a result, the quicker bowlers did well. Even if there isn't overcast conditions around, I do expect a decent pitch for the seamers, as in recent times, we have seen a bit more bounce for the seamers. I just don't think one will see the dry wickets that we witnessed in the late 90's and the early part of the last decade.
Finally, I just hope that we will see India make a comeback in the series, as you just don't want to see a big ticket series like India v Australia end up as a one way traffic with one team dominating all the time. For that to happen, the much vaunted Indian batting line-up has to fire. To be honest, as a cricket connoisseur, I still have almost a blind faith in India's batting might, but they just can't afford to have another batting collapse like at MCG, as they have already lost the first match.