Australia’s ambitious mission in India has gone off the rails after only four days. A demoralising defeat in the first Test at the M.A.Chidambaram Stadium was all but confirmed late on Monday afternoon on a wicket that turned, for the hosts’ spin bowlers anyway, like a Mafia informant.
Even Michael Clarke, the most cultured player of spin, was unable to survive too long as local hero Ravi Ashwin, continuing his love affair at home, collected a dozen. With his partners in crime, Harbhajan Singh and Ravindra Jadeja, also having a field day, the Australian order duly crumbled.
The visitors crept into a fifth day at 9-232, a lead of 40, at stumps on Monday, with a stubborn Moises Henriques (75 not out) refusing to give in. But almost certainly Australia will fall 1-0 behind in a four-match series they had entered with every hope of winning. The campaign is not ruined yet but it will be a long way back, particularly in this part of the world.
They can take some heart from England’s exploits on the subcontinent last year – Alastair Cook’s side fell 1-0 behind then before marching back to triumph 2-1. But an Australian series victory, only achieved once in India in the past 40 years, seemed the stuff of fantasy as their frailties against spin were exposed on Monday.
There were ominous signs of what was to come when India, having taken a first-innings lead of 192 thanks largely to M.S.Dhoni’s momentous 224, opened the bowling with Ashwin and Singh.
It took until the final half-hour for them to use a seamer, Ishant Sharma in Australia’s second dig, with anything but spin rendered surplus to requirements. If the pitch prepared in Hyderabad on Saturday is anything like this dustbowl they may as well ditch their quicks altogether and roll out a couple of extra batsmen.
There will be intense pressure on Australia to make changes as well. After being hammered by Dhoni, there were already question marks about Australia’s attack. Now, there are comparable ones about the batsmen’s ability to combat spin. An advance party of players were sent to India almost three weeks ago for that very reason: to adjust to the intricacies of facing slow bowling on subcontinent goat tracks. Others came over to practise bowling on it, and play around with reverse swing.
The batting was anything but convincing, even acknowledging the demons the curator had planted in Chennai, where India have not lost since 1999. Clarke can hardly be faulted. His first-innings century was followed by an unfortunate exit for 31 on Monday, out leg-before to an Ashwin ball that skipped out of the rough so lowly that it just about grazed his toes. Maybe he shouldn’t have been cutting at it but Clarke was at least playing his shots. Nor could there be criticism of Henriques. A second fifty in his debut Test helped Australia avoid the ignominy of an innings defeat and his resistance and craft was admirable as he squeezed as much out of the tail as he could.
There is less confidence elsewhere. Shane Watson, promoted to opener with David Warner battling gastroenteritis, was intent on using his rich experience in India to be Clarke’s main support here. After going on the attack early, he was the first out, however, caught at slip as the ball reared up, clipping the bat’s shoulder and veering to the slips.
It is now 35 Test innings since Watson reached three figures – on Australia’s last tour of India, in late 2010. With his bowling on fitness-enforced hiatus, the heat will only intensify on him to prove his value as a batsman only, let alone as a Test opener, where he wants to play full-time.
Among the others, Ed Cowan (32) and David Warner (23), dragging himself out at No.3, could only hang around for so long, while Phil Hughes’ forgettable Test was capped when he was struck on the glove, without scoring, by a heat-seeking high bouncer from Jadeja.
There was more bad news for Australia on Monday night, with reserve seamer Jackson Bird sent home for scans on a back injury.