Chennai: Midway through the first day's play in Chennai on Friday (February 22), with Australia reeling at 153 for 5 after 47 overs, India might have entertained visions of batting after tea. But Michael Clarke, who scored 626 runs in the home series against India just over a year ago, and Moises Henriques, who batted with tremendous composure on debut, then added 151 in just 254 balls to ensure that honours would be shared on the opening day of this four-Test series. R Ashwin bowled beautifully at times to take the first six wickets to fall, but Clarke's sixth century against India led his team to the relative safety of 316 for 7 at stumps.
Henriques, who scored a large proportion of his runs through midwicket, fell to the sweep a quarter of an hour before stumps, and Ravindra Jadeja bowled Mitchell Starc soon after to ruin any chances of Ashwin joining Jim Laker and Anil Kumble in the perfect-ten category. The last word, however, belonged to Clarke, who got to his hundred in the final over of the day, having taken just 168 balls for it.
The story of the day would have been so very different if Kumar Dharmasena had upheld a vociferous appeal from Ashwin for a bat-pad catch when Clarke had made just 39, and Australia 206. There was a clear inside edge on to the flap of the pad, but despite the Indians going up in unison, Dharmasena was unmoved.
It didn't help either that the support for Ashwin ranged from indifferent to poor. Jadeja was accurate, but didn't vary his pace enough to really create confusion in the batsmen's minds. As for Harbhajan Singh, who was introduced as early as the sixth over in his 100th Test, he pitched the ball too short too often to make any kind of impact. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, making his debut after Pragyan Ojha – India's best bowler in the series against England – was dropped, did little with the new ball, while Ishant Sharma, despite getting some reverse swing, was just as ineffective.
Ashwin, who eschewed too many variations and focussed on the stock ball, could have had a wicket in his very first over, when he had David Warner edging a cut to Virender Sehwag at slip. Sehwag, who had dropped Alastair Cook at a vital stage of the Mumbai Test, was in no sort of position to take it, and the missed chance allowed Warner and Ed Cowan to add a further 25 for the opening wicket. MS Dhoni missed a stumping soon after as Warner led a charmed life early on. By Warner standards, a 77-ball half-century was sedate, and Ashwin himself had reason to regret a sluggish response to a caught-and-bowled chance off the leading edge.
Cowan, who made 29, was the first to go, taking the play-positive mantra a bit too far with a rush-of-blood charge at an Ashwin off break that left him stranded yards outside the crease. Phil Hughes then dragged a wide delivery back on to his leg stump, and it needed a half-century partnership between Warner and Shane Watson to take Australia through to lunch on 126 for 2.
It didn't take Ashwin long to make his mark after the interval. Watson played down the wrong line to be struck in front, and Warner soon followed, trapped deep in his crease by a full delivery. Matthew Wade made 12 before Ashwin got one to pitch on leg stump and turn across the bat to strike him in front. The sudden collapse brought to mind the Chennai Test of 2004, when Kumble took 7 for 48 to send Australia tumbling from 136 without loss to 235 all out. This time, there was no Kumble, only Ashwin ploughing a lone furrow. Clarke and Henriques made sure history didn't repeat itself.
Clarke played shots all round the wicket, and was particularly strong square of it and down the ground. There was one beautifully struck six over long-on off Ashwin, and his nimble footwork made sure that no bowler could settle into a rhythm. As was the case in 2004, when his partnership with Adam Gilchrist pushed Australia into a dominant position in Bangalore, he was the star of the series' opening act.
Story first published on: Friday, 22 February 2013 09:56 IST