Sydney: In the 129 years since the SCG hosted its first Test, batsmen's lives have been made infinitely easier. Pitches are now covered. Boundaries have been shortened by ropes. Helmets have allowed batsmen to hook with impunity, and they do so with heavier bats. It is to the credit of the bowlers that the contest between bat and ball remains gripping. So it was on the first day of this match, as James Pattinson and his Australian colleagues, and then Zaheer Khan for India, dominated proceedings.
By stumps on the opening day of the SCG's hundredth Test, 13 wickets had tumbled - more than the 11 that fell on the first day of Test cricket at the ground back in 1882. India's captain MS Dhoni chose to bat on a pitch that featured some grass, but his batsmen didn't back him up. Dhoni was the only man to score a half-century in India's innings of 191, which ended soon after tea, and it was the wrong way for India to start a Test in which they needed victory to retain a chance of winning the series.
Briefly, and surprisingly, their total appeared competitive, for Australia's inexperienced top order wobbled to 3 for 37 against the swing of Zaheer. But through Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting, Australia wrested back the advantage. At stumps, their partnership had grown to 79, Australia's score was 3 for 116, and Ponting (44 not out) and Clarke (47 not out) both looked in ominous form.
Things could easily have gone badly wrong for Australia after Zaheer's early strikes. David Warner edged in the first over of the innings, the catch snapped up by Sachin Tendulkar at first slip after bounced out of the hands of VVS Laxman at second. In Zaheer's next over, his first ball caught the edge of Shaun Marsh's bat and was taken by Laxman, placing Zaheer on a hat-trick.
It continued a disappointing return to Test cricket for Marsh, whose golden duck followed 0 and 3 in the Melbourne Test. This time he played limply at a ball he should have left alone, returning the favour of earlier the day, when Laxman fell to a similarly poor stroke that was edged to Marsh in the cordon. Both men would happy with their catches, neither with their choice of shot.
Zaheer's hat-trick ball was negotiated by Ponting, but a few overs later the opener Ed Cowan became Zaheer's third wicket, trapped lbw for 16 to a ball that struck him just in line with off stump. It was a fine spell of bowling from Zaheer, but the partnership of Clarke and Ponting, both of whom played some fine pulls late in the day, gave Australia a strong chance of a first-innings lead.
But as India showed in their first innings, good starts from two men won't necessarily mean anything. Dhoni finished unbeaten on 57 and Tendulkar, searching for his hundredth international hundred in the SCG's hundredth Test, made a confident 41 but a distinct lack of support from the rest of the batting order cost India dearly.
Again, they were beaten by an excellent bowling performance from Australia's three fast men, Pattinson, Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle, who between them collected all ten wickets. Watching the strongly-built Pattinson bound in and attack some of the world's best batsmen, it is easy to forget how inexperienced he is - this was the first time he had played a first-class match at the SCG.
He betrayed no nerves and struck in the first over of the Test: his third ball pitched leg and nipped away from Gautam Gambhir, who edged to first slip for a duck to continue his slump. It was tough going early for India's batsmen and Rahul Dravid departed for 5 from 33 deliveries when he inside-edged onto his leg off Siddle and was taken by Cowan at short leg.
That brought Tendulkar to the crease to a standing ovation, as is the case in every innings he plays these days, and he played some wonderful cover-drives as Siddle bowled full, seeking an edge. But while Tendulkar was calm and classy, his partner Virender Sehwag never looked completely settled.
There were a few typical Sehwag flashes and he was lucky not to be caught at second slip on 23 when he edged Hilfenhaus and Ponting put down a simple chance, and a Siddle offcutter beat the bat and sailed over the stumps. Sehwag's luck ran out on 30 when he got a regulation edge behind off the outswing of Pattinson, who had returned for another spell and bowled full, fast and tested the batsmen.
It was precisely that sort of delivery that Pattinson used to get rid of Laxman (2), a man who has tormented Australia over the years, especially at the SCG, where his Test average before today was 96.20. Laxman didn't move his feet and wafted at a drive before he was well set - but it was Pattinson's outswing that ensured the edge behind.
It left India at 4 for 72 at lunch and although Tendulkar and Virat Kohli steadied and batted solidly in the half hour after the break, the wickets again started to fall. Kohli was done by Siddle's aggression - two bouncers were followed by a fuller outswinger and the batsman didn't move his feet well enough, edging behind for 23.
Soon afterwards, Pattinson picked up the huge wicket of Tendulkar, who had looked good in his 41 but played on when he tried to drive a fullish ball wide of off stump. A ton of tons would have to wait. R Ashwin and Dhoni steadied the innings with a 54-run stand but in the last over before tea, Ashwin (20) edged to slip and next ball Zaheer fended a catch to short leg to put Hilfenhaus on a hat-trick.
After tea, Ishant Sharma survived the hat-trick ball but few more - he also gloved a well-directed Hilfenhaus bouncer to short leg. Siddle finished the innings by having Umesh Yadav caught behind for a duck off a good full outswinger, the last three tailenders all having made ducks. Australia's lower order showed in Melbourne how important late runs can be; India may rue their tail's inability to stick around and support Dhoni, who ran out of partners.
His decision to bat was sound, but much of India's batting was not. Their chances might now rest with the bowlers.