In form … Michael Clarke, who remained unbeaten on 70, drives during his innings. Photo: AFP
GOING by the scorecards, Michael Clarke was taking a risk when he chose to bat first at Bellerive, given the three first-class matches that preceded the opening Test against Sri Lanka produced an average first-innings score of 91.
Going by the day-one outcome, the decision was as solid as the captain's close-to-peerless batting.
Of the four wickets to fall, only one, that of Phillip Hughes for 86 in an assured Test comeback, could be described as being influenced by the pitch or overhead conditions. The others were to be blamed on a poor shot (Ed Cowan), poor running between wickets (David Warner) or astonishing fielding (Shane Watson).
Australia ended the day at 4-299, with their two middle-order mainstays at the crease: Clarke on 70 and Mike Hussey on 37.
Against New Zealand in Hobart last year, Australia managed only two half-century partnerships for the entire match. On day-one alone this year, they managed two, plus an as-yet unbeaten century stand. The home team's ability to deny Sri Lanka a streak of wickets required discipline, the trait that eluded all three of the visitors' pacemen as they overstepped on 10 occasions. It was deserving that the ninth of those no-balls resulted in Hughes, in a conspicuous example of his more reckless former self, being spared after edging behind while cutting too close to his body.
Hughes's departure for 86 seven balls into the last session thwarted the possibility of a century, yet any disappointment that generated among the crowd was trumped by yet another commanding performance from Clarke. As the day's play threatened to amble to a close, such was the inability of the Sri Lankans to threaten Clarke or Hussey, Clarke aided the spectacle with some sparkling driven boundaries.
The change in mindset required for Hughes between opening and first drop was minimal, as he was called on within 26 minutes of the start. Cowan almost departed for a second golden duck in as many Tests. Soon after, he fell to his second pull shot in as many Tests, punished for underestimating the bounce produced by left-armer Chanaka Welegedara, prompting Hughes's arrival.
Hughes started his innings aggressively, cutting and driving powerfully through his still-favoured offside, but in the second half of the morning session he was content to play a supporting role to Warner, whose last first-class innings at the ground was his masterful unbeaten century against New Zealand. Conditions on Friday were nowhere near as difficult as they were against the Black Caps; nevertheless, Warner deserved praise for his latest innings too.
''I was just trying to give him the strike,'' Hughes said of his fellow left-hander. ''I had the best seat in the house down the other end.''
Except for an edge from Warner that flew just wide of the slip cordon late in the opening session, there were few nervous moments for him and Hughes against Sri Lanka's maligned pace attack.
Warner batted impressively and looked set to go to the break half-way to another century in Hobart but was undone by a mix-up with Hughes in the last over before lunch. He drove Tillakaratne Dilshan into the off side and sought a single but then changed his mind after he saw the ball had been collected by Angelo Mathews, although by that stage Hughes was committed to running.
Much of Hughes's innings was subdued, although that seemed to change once he reached his half-century in the 44th over. Soon after, he hit a boundary down the ground - his preceding seven had been square of the wicket - and then crudely but effectively blasted Rangana Herath for six over wide long-on.
The pall cast by Welegedara's overstepping when he had Hughes caught behind was lifted in the left-armer's next over. An attempted drive from Watson flew off a thick outside edge, and Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene, belying his age of 35, threw himself to his right and took the catch one-handed with an outstretched right arm.
Hughes came into the match with a meagre home Test average of 14.58 and a top score of 37 but went to the tea break with both already exceeded. He could only add four more runs on his return before being bowled for 86.
His departure was all that went wrong for Australia, and right for Sri Lanka, in the last session. Clarke and Hussey have both faced calls to move up the order to strengthen the top. While the merits of that are debatable, one thing is not: their performances have already justified why the Sri Lankans have identified them as the key Australian scalps.