Aussies and mid-afternoon madness

Being brave is one thing but bravado is altogether another. By the close on the fourth day of the second Test against India at the PCA Stadium in Mohali, Australia looks like it is set to pay a price for the bravado of its top-order batsmen. It was a cruel mid-afternoon madness that struck Australia, leaving its latter half the challenge of batting out close to four sessions to defy India.
As we settled down to watch Australia’s response to the tasks of either chasing 516 runs to claim an improbable victory or batting through four and a half sessions to escape with a draw, it seemed as if Australia was intent on defying history. But the attack that Matthew Hayden and Simon Katich launched on the new ball was a bluff and was not destined to last long.
Surprisingly, the Australian thinktank was not ready to borrow a leaf or two from the Indian book. The home team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni had shown on the second day that counter-attack was not just about throwing the bat at everything. Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag reinforced this line of thinking with their massive opening partnership in India’s second innings.
In both instances, the Indian batsmen accorded the bowlers respect when they deserved but punished them for errors of line and length. It was not as if the Indians were driving at the same pace all along, shifting gears as and when necessary. This seemed to be lost on the Australian openers when they walked in to bat in the fourth innings, facing a target of 516 runs.
Hayden and Katich plundered the new ball attack but showed no willingness to wait to dominate off-spinner Harbhajan Singh. Had they succeeded in working on his patience, Australia may have been in a more comfortable position than the 141 for five that it finds itself in at the close of play on Monday.
Hayden and Hussey, two of Australia’s best batsmen against spin bowling, were guilty of attempting rash, cross-batted strokes to just the second and fourth deliveries respectively that they faced from Harbhajan Singh. They perished to leg before decisions to the off-spinner, delivering from round the wicket and holding the cricket ball back teasingly.
Katich, whose defence is well-organised, was also consumed by a desire to not let the off-spinner drop into a length and was taken brilliantly by Sachin Tendulkar at short point when he attempted an ill-advised cut. Harbahajan Singh had amazing figures of 1.3-0-3-3 and Australia staring down the barrel of a gun.
The Australian batsmen obviously learn their lessons in attack, counterattack and defence elsewhere but they did not seem open to adapting to the conditions and the circumstances. Of course, Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin embraced a balance between attack and defence to survive enormous pressure in putting up a battling 83-run partnership for the sixth wicket.
The Clarke and Haddin’s stand has stretched the match into the fifth day and showed that there was precious little in the track to be afraid of. The moot question is: Has the realisation come slightly late in the day to stop India from securing a 1-0 lead on a flat track in Mohali?
It is not as if it was only the Australian batters who were not ready to learn lessons by watching India’s performers at work. Their fastmedim bowlers did not land the ball in the right areas, firing it in too short. That ploy worked against night-watchman Ishant Sharma and Sourav Ganguly in the first half-hour on the second day but Dhoni dispelled notions that the Indian batsmen could be driven to submission.
Zaheer Khan did not have too many wickets to show but he managed to swing the cricket ball consistently in the first innings while Ishant Sharma hit the right length, getting it to jag back off the seam significantly. None of the Australian pacemen, not even Mitchell Johnson who took three wickets in the first innings, can look back at this Test match with any amount of pride.
Australia could have done with Steve Waugh’s dogged sensibilities to hold fort in Mohali but his kind of batting seemed alien to this bunch. Australia will realise that batting in Tests is not always about attempting to take the bowlers to the cleaners or drawing the shutters. A balance has to be found as Test cricket unerringly punishes teams struck by mid-afternoon madness.