Close call: Shane Watson avoids a bouncer on the opening day of the Test against Sri Lanka. Photo: Reuters
GOING by the scorecards, Michael Clarke was taking a risk when he chose to bat first at Bellerive Oval, given the three first-class matches that preceded the series-opening Test against Sri Lanka produced an average first-innings score of 91.
Going by the day-one outcome, however, 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 v Sri Lanka, first Test, day one
Australian captain Michael Clarke tosses the coin prior to the start of play on day one of the First Test against Sri Lanka. Photo: Getty Images
Australia ended day one at 4-299 with its two middle-order mainstays still 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 it 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 on day one as they overstepped on 10 occasions. It was therefore 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 a ball too close to his body.
Hughes' departure seven balls into the last session thwarted the possibility of a maiden century in Australia, yet any disappointment that generated in the sparse 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 that Clarke aided the spectacle with some sparkling driven boundaries late in the day.
The change in mindset required for Hughes between opening and first drop was minimal, as within 26 minutes of the start he was called on. Cowan, having almost departed for a second golden duck in as many Tests, fell for four to his second pull-shot in as many Tests, punished for underestimating the bounce produced by left-armer Chanaka Welegedara.
Hughes started his innings aggressively, cutting and driving powerfully through his still-favoured off-side, but in the second half of the morning session was content to play a supporting role to David Warner, whose last first-class innings at Bellerive was his masterful unbeaten century against New Zealand.
Conditions on Friday were nowhere near as difficult as they were against the Black Caps, but that should not skew the fact 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.''
Warner batted impressively and looked set to go to lunch past the halfway mark to another century in Hobart but was undone by a mix-up with Hughes in the last over before the break. Warner nudged into the off-side and set off on a tight single before changing his mind, by which stage Hughes had almost reached his end and Warner was easily run out at the bowler's end for 57. Much of Hughes' innings was subdued, although that seemed to change once he reached his half-century in the 44th over. Soon after, he notched 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 Shane Watson flew off a thick outside edge, prompting Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene to belie his age - 35 - by throwing himself to his right and claim the catch one-handed with a fully 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 easily exceeded. He was able to add only four more runs on his return, bowled for 86 by a superb delivery from Welegedara that shaped into him and clipped his off-stump via his inside-edge.
Hughes' 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 batting order. While the merits of that are debatable, one thing is not: that already they have justified why the Sri Lankans have identified them as the key Australia scalps in this series.