Too few watched, but rewards for those who made the effort
Demolition man … Peter Siddle celebrates the wicket of Angelo Mathews. The Victorian finished with another five-wicket haul. Photo: AP
At the heart of Sunday's play at Blundstone Arena, as the first Test hung in the balance, not many people watched not much happen for quite a long time. It was a deceptive inertia. Always, there was a sense that something must and would give, that a tipping of the scales would come.
It did. In the first half of the day, Sri Lanka made 0-161. In the second, it was 6-88, and still there was time between sunshowers for Australia to add 27 to their lead. Test cricket rarely delivers instant gratification. The moral of Sunday is cricket does not have to be synced to a teenager's temperament to be fulfilling.
Sadly, this was lost on Hobart, which again largely turned its back on a Test match. Rain and the swirling threat of more did not help, nor extortionate prices, but perhaps it is simply that Hobart is not a Test match sort of place. Tasmania's two best cricketers were sons of Launceston: its day might soon come.
Both teams found themselves in reduced circumstances, hence the attritional nature of the cricket. Sri Lanka had fallen a long way behind in the match, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Angelo Mathews were the last recognised batsmen, so this became a day for derring-don't. Australia was struck early by another outbreak of its own bubonic plague when Ben Hilfenhaus suddenly could not go on. Call it the intercostal epidemic.
It created two demands: extra effort from the remaining bowlers and imaginative captaincy from Michael Clarke, if he was to avoid a repeat of the carnage of the battle of Adelaide.
The day was cool and the wind blustery; it was unsuited to creative bowling, also, you imagine, to Sri Lankan batsmen. Essentially, the day was distilled into a protracted duel between Dilshan and Peter Siddle. In their separate disciplines, they toiled away, giving little ground but gaining only by microscopic increments.
Dilshan is an original. He has about him in the crease a bit of the insouciant air of Chris Gayle. His philosophy is uncomplicated. He hits the ball hard and repeatedly, but with little subtlety. He does not look for gaps; rather, he tries to make them, as if with a hammer and punch. If he does not pierce, he forgets that ball and concentrates on the next. He runs as necessary, but no more. In this patient way, he held the crease for seven hours. As long as he was there, Sri Lanka had a toehold.
But Siddle had snuffed the battle. After the laming of Hilfenhaus, Dilshan and Mathews had seized control with a flurry of hitting. In three concerted spells, Siddle wrested it back to arm-wrestle neutral.
At one stage, he bowled 38 dot balls in a row. But this was no mere holding operation. Siddle pitched up, invited the drive, teased the Sri Lankans. Enough times, he fizzed the ball past groping outside edges to sustain Australia's belief in waiting for good things. Clarke gave him his head, alternating Mitch Starc and Shane Watson in much shorter spells. Watson was spared for his own sake, Starc for Australia's. His bowling this day was a little like Mitch Johnson's, in instances unplayable, but otherwise thriftless. It meant that Siddle had to cover his own flank as he attacked.
Understudies played their part. Mathews's style is wooden and unnatural, but effective. When given room, he hit out lustily; otherwise, he concentrated on jumpy, but stout defence. It was a methodology that worked for four hours. For Australia, Nathan Lyon shrugged off an early counter-attack on his off-spinners to foil for Siddle and probe in his own right. Starc's footmarks helped, but increasingly, he is making his own footprint on Test cricket.
For all these footsloggers, reward duly came, though in quirky succession. Siddle at last burst through Mathews's defence, and the mood of the match changed. For Siddle, it was the first of three successive lbws, and a deserved bag of five, all full-pitched booty. But it was Starc who claimed Dilshan as he jammed down tiredly on an around-the-wicket yorker.
Lyon should have had Nuwan Kulasekara stumped and did have him caught in the distance at mid-wicket. This was justice for two men, Lyon, and club cricketer Jordan Silk, who had patrolled the outfield with surety all day after Hilfenhaus's departure and now nervelessly had his keepsake moment. Australia was again in charge, but it had taken every last man, and then one.