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Siddle-handed demolition job masks inherent hallucination that all is not what it seems

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Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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The go-to man ... Peter Siddle took nine wickets for the match.

The go-to man ... Peter Siddle took nine wickets for the match. Photo: AFP

Michael Clarke's work with smoke and mirrors was so deft that another sparse gathering of watchers at Bellerive could have sworn they saw wicketkeeper Matt Wade bowl an over of nippy medium pace. This time, Clarke's artful shuffling worked. That was largely the doing of dauntless Peter Siddle, no one's idea of an apparition. For the second time in three Tests - for him the second time in a row - he shouldered the burden of leading a threadbare attack's last-day charge at victory. This time, he was triumphant.

The figures lied. Siddle single-handedly dislodged Sri Lanka's vastly experienced middle order, and until the death was the only Australian wicket-taker. Mitchell Starc, previously a mild performer, stepped up to sweep away the tail, rather like a relieving pitcher in baseball. For Siddle, it was four of the best, for Starc, four of the rest. Of course, it was important that they were taken. But no one could doubt who had shaped this victory.

Moreover, Siddle toiled under a cloud - perhaps unseen by him - of an allegation, never formalised, of ball tampering while taking five wickets in Sri Lanka's first innings. Officials had to decide after watching footage and looking at a still photo widely circulated on social media whether Siddle had been altogether too dextrous.

The Australian team goes into a huddle to celebrate after the final Sri Lankan wicket, that of Shaminda Eranga (right), fell to give the home team a 1-0 lead in the three-Test series. Click for more photos

Australia wins first Test in Hobart

Australia defeats Sri Lanka by 137 runs in Hobart to take a 1-0 lead in the three-Test series. Photo: Reuters

At stumps, the ICC announced that there would be no charge, and the sun came out, which was the only fresh light shed. What could be seen unambiguously is that Australia have had few more whole-hearted cricketers.

This was a triumph for Siddle, and in the end for Starc, also for Clarke. As captain, he was faced with moving targets: rain breaks, obdurate batsman, made doubly so because they were released from any obligation to play shots, and the need to manage his decimated bowling resources - made thinner still by his own inability to bowl - without over-taxing any one of them.

Adelaide would have loomed large in his alert and always laterally disposed mind. Siddle, for instance, did not bowl more than seven overs in any spell. If you were to proffer a criticism of Clarke, it would be only that he might have set more pressing fields, sooner, for at no stage this day did runs matter. He can sleep easy; beauty is as beauty does.

Yet Australia must beware illusion. Four times this summer, their attack has been made to look impotent. South Africa assailed the hosts in Brisbane on the first day of that series, and again at a crucial juncture of the deciding Test in Perth. In Adelaide, the Australian bowlers failed to bowl out South African in a day-and-a-half. Here, they did at length bowl out Sri Lanka, but not until after 6pm on day five.

In both latter instances, there were severely mitigating circumstances, in the form of a fallen man in the ranks. It is true also that Australia have been plagued by injuries to bowlers, and their attack has never been able to settle.

But there is another context. The Adelaide pitch remained a belter throughout, but this one was authentic day five, patterned with footmarks and cracks, liable to bounce oddly and dangerously, just what the bowlologist ordered. The evidence of its vagaries was plain in the antics of Wade, who spent the day - apart from one over - flinging himself in all directions.

Yet the Sri Lankan batsmen rarely were as troubled. Starc was unthreatening until the death, and neither Shane Watson nor Nathan Lyon took a wicket on the final day. Lyon's work grew increasingly rushed and his confidence visibly dwindled. Neither in Adelaide nor here did he seize the moment. The spin question again is open.

In the first two sessions on Tuesday, Australia had only the admittedly handsome wickets of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara to show for their labours. Two lbw decisions against Sangakkara were overturned on referral before a third stuck, but otherwise even half chances and strangled appeals were rare. Not once did Australia feel that they had cause to take a not-out decision to the third umpire.

All hope reposed in Siddle, who periodically delivered. So it was that victory would recede over a misty horizon, then reappear, then recede again; this was the rhythm. It made for a tense and tactically intricate day of Test cricket, though again it was largely lost on Hobart town.

But you suspect that neither South Africa nor England, having done the hard yards, would have yielded in this ultimately meek manner. In the prelude to this series, much was made of Sri Lanka's popgun attack. For a disconcertingly long time, Australia's appreciation looked to have been made from within a glass house.