Hyderabad: Put through another searching examination by India's bowling unit, pacers and spinners alike, Australia had very few answers on an action-packed opening day of the second Test on Saturday (March 2).
It was always expected that it wouldn't be just spin that would hold centrestage at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium. A dry but abrasive surface with more than the odd crack suggested that the quicker bowlers too would have a say, and that is exactly how it panned out in front of 25,000-plus fans who braved a harsh sun to soak in the day's entertainment.
Michael Clarke won a second significant toss of the series and promptly chose to bat, but less than an hour and a half into the day, Mahendra Singh Dhoni must have felt it was a very good toss to lose as Australia stumbled to 63 for 4. The bulk of the damage was done by Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who picked up 3 for 36 in an extended nine-over opening burst by making excellent use of the cracks that allowed the ball to jag around.
Australia found their heroes for three hours in Clarke, once again batting like a dream as he used his feet excellently to the spinners in both attack and defence, and Matthew Wade, the wicketkeeper-batsman who made light of a fractured cheekbone to help his captain add 145 for the fifth wicket. At 208 for 4, Australia were handily placed when the innings turned on its head after Harbhajan Singh, eventually, accounted for Wade.
Australia lost 5 for 29 in 99 deliveries to subside to 237 for 9, Clarke missing out on a second straight ton when, out of the blue, he applied a dramatic declaration after 85 overs. It was a statement of intent, giving his bowlers three overs to have a crack at Murali Vijay and Virender Sehwag, already nervy after twin failures in Chennai and suddenly, unexpectedly, confronted with a totally different challenge.
Through a little bit of luck and plenty of pluck, they saw off those three overs without being separated, Sehwag unleashing one cracking drive on the up as India finished on 5 without loss.
There was very little of note from a batting perspective for Australia beyond the Clarke-Wade partnership. Batting wasn't the easiest of tasks with the ball jagging around, swinging both conventionally and reversing; puffs of dust flew occasionally when the ball disturbed the dry top, and there was turn as well as bounce for India's unchanged spin attack, but even so, Australia could have done with a little more application from the top order.
Bhuvneshwar was brilliant during his opening burst, shaping one back in to get through David Warner's defence and winning a marginal call for leg before against Ed Cowan. There was a brief recovery period when Phillip Hughes, latching on to a wayward Ishant Sharma, and Shane Watson added 42 for the third, but Bhuvneshwar got one to stay down and defeat Watson's pull, followed not long thereafter by R Ashwin accounting for Hughes.
Hughes had gone strokeless against Ashwin, playing out four consecutive maidens, when he tried to essay a cut to a ball that got big on him. Dhoni allowed the ball to pop out of his gloves but gathered his wits quickly to dive to his left and complete the catch, one of two good grabs on an otherwise poor day when his collection let him down, and he put down a catch as well as missed a stumping, neither of which proved particularly expensive.
Dhoni's captaincy too was a little hard to fathom. He pulled Ashwin off the attack when the offspinner was in the middle of an excellent spell, and didn't bring him back for more than an hour and a quarter, by which time Clarke and Wade had settled in nicely. When he did turn to his most successful bowler of the previous game, he brought him on from the end opposite to where he had weaved his web in the first session. On another day, it could have proved a costly error; fortunately for him, both Ravindra Jadeja and Harbhajan delivered after tea, striking one quick blow after another.
When Clarke and Wade were together, though, batting didn't look all that difficult. There was the occasional false stroke, the odd moment of uncertainty, but beyond that, India didn't get much of a look-in. Clarke was nimble-footed, unafraid to leave his crease and shimmy down the track, while Wade opened out after a very quiet start to hit boldly in the air down the ground, putting the Indian spinners off their rhythm.
India looked short on ideas during the second session, their shoulders drooping visibly after Cheteshwar Pujara reacted late at short leg and put down Clarke, then 52 out of 159 for 4, off Harbhajan. The period after lunch produced 104 runs in 32 overs, indicative of Australia's intent, though soon after the tea break, both batsmen went into their shell.
Only 21 had come in 8.2 overs when Harbhajan elicited a loose stroke from Wade for a well crafted 62. Allowed a look-in, India swarmed all over Australia, Jadeja hitting a purple patch. Getting the ball to turn prodigiously, he winkled out Moises Henriques with a ripper that spun across the face of the bat, then got rid of Glenn Maxwell, the debutant, to Dhoni's second good catch of the day.
Clarke refused to farm the strike and Australia paid a heavy price when Peter Siddle was trapped in front by Harbhajan. It elicited the first poor stroke of the day from the Australian captain, whose slog-sweep against Jadeja connected with thin air as the ball kept its date with the middle stumps. Eleven deliveries later came the declaration; India saw off the day, but a big challenge lies ahead of them on the morrow when they will also have to confront the left-arm spin of Xavier Doherty, preferred to Nathan Lyon, the offspinner.