So, both sides can bat, but can either side knock over the other side twice? Around here the loss of both McGrath and Warne has been discussed at length. Both had a confidence inspiring knack of picking up wickets at crucial times, but just as importantly, they could put the clamps on a scoring rate. Can our new-look attack cover their loss? We had a hint against the Shrees when we struggled to put them away at Bellerive - admittedly, not a minefield - and starting today we will further find out where our leather-flingers are at against a superior, if under-prepared, India.
India have their bowling issues, too. According to the Herald Sun they sent out an S.O.S to have both Ishant Sharma and Munaf Patel picked. The Hun shouldn't have been so quick to pick. India decided to stick with Kumble, Harby, Zaheer Khan and RP Singh. If Straya get away to a steady start, it's hard to see that attack rolling us toot-sweet. As always with Straya, though, you worry about their tendency to get themselves out. In Adelaide in 2003 they let right-arm-ordinary Agit Agakar run through the line-up, then Gilchrist dropped Dravid and India pinched a win out of nowhere. Very much cowboys v. Indians. Calcutta 2001 Straya were desperate to keep their winning run going, but fell victim to Wee Wee Laxman's double century, then, on a difficult last day wicket, still chased a win instead of shutting up shop. That profligacy cost us a Test match.
Did I mention chasing records? There's a coincidence. Did I mention dropped catches? Touch wood. Did I mention dodgy umpiring? Well, I didn't mention dodgy umpiring, but for the record the umpires gave us a hiding in Calcutta. Not that I'm complaining. Not at all. Just pointing out the facts.
Anyhoo, for me, it's all about the bowling.
A good start: Ponting won the toss and Straya will bat first. No one seems to know what the MCG pitch will do, but if Straya can weather any early awkwardness, batting first is probably the best bet; what's more, it reinforces the decision to pick Hogg in preference to Larry Tait.
And I'm glad we didn't play four quicks. If the four bowlers were guns, say, Marshall, Ambrose, Holding and Garner, you'd pick them. But if you think the significantly less deadly Lee, Clark, Johnston and Tait are all good enough to play in the one match on anything other than a concrete green-top, you're kidding yourself. Hogg had to play.
It's a measure of how good Straya have been in recent years that a score of 337 on Day One attracts the Herald Sun headline: CRUSHER KUMBLE Indian captain spearheads Aussie demolition. Which is definitive enough until you read in the same paper: HOW ABOUT THAT Kiwis finally find form at Bangladesh expense. That's alright, I can take a joke. Still, the first headline is a fair indication of how much cricket has changed in recent years. Time was a score of 250 on day one at the MCG was considered a good day's work; 300 almost a batting miracle.
Nevertheless, 0/135 to 9/337 is 9/202 which ain't great. Especially when you considered most got starts. A point which seems to have eluded Tony Grieg, who at 5:56 said: "These Aussies always fight it out, no one's going to give their wicket away." What's he on? Hungry, Reverend Flatty, Clarke, Sidey Roy, Church (the zombie cat in Pet Sematary) and Georgie Hogg were all set until they got out to shit shots. Thankfully Flatty cashed in, but Hungry's was one of those dismissals you had a hunch might change the momentum given that Kumble, ever since his first over, looked as if he might provide some discomfort. The rest were lame: Clarke forgot to move his feet; Roy tried to crowbar the ball through mid-wicket; Gilly slung across a wide one; Hoggy slashed at his first ball with the second new ball. If that's not a paragon example of "give their wicket away" then I'm Bhagwat Chandraseker.
But what about India? Well, their bowling was good, but not stellar. Kumble, right from the time he came on, looked dangerous; Zack Khan was steady; RP fair to middling; Harby got better as the day went on. But like Nick mentioned in the comments, their fielding was dreadful. Was it Greg Chappell who taught them to escort balls to the boundary? Which makes the fact they took their catches, not that they were blinders, galling. A couple of drops and we might have been sitting pretty. In recent years we've benefited big time from other sides' charity, but now that the other side pouched most everything, it will be interesting to see if we, in turn, hold all our catches. If we start dropping chances, as we did in 2003/04, I'll have a fit.
Two connected questions. Is (now) 343 a bad score? And, how is the pitch? Bill Lawry is convinced batting yesterday was easy and that the pitch is only going to get better. ("Nine wickets in a day is almost unheard of.") That's despite batting on the MCG being an awkward prospect all season. Tony Greig thinks yesterday's score wasn't too bad and that Straya did pretty well. So it's good or it's bad, which is typical of a sports coverage covering all angles, but if it gets any gooderer, then Straya will be in trouble as I don't expect India to chuck their wickets away... well, that depends on what Yuvy Shwing gets up to. And given tail-enders Johnston and Clark got starts, too, we now get a very real chance to see if our new attack can restrict a good batting line-up in, what would appear to be, favourable conditions.
Did I mention India have no coach?
I think Bruce sums it up best:
Dravid's pathetic start set the tone for the day. For all their talk of taking it up the Aussies it was only Tendulker and Ganguly who showed any aggression and Kumble could only add some defiance at the end. Even with their targetting of Hoggy he has only gone for the same rate as India did.
Even so - there will be enough time to chase down 400 - if they are good enough.
After Straya had been rolled for what Flatty called a "par effort" - I'd say "slightly below par" but I don't want to confuse anyone strolling in here from a golf blog who thinks "slightly below par" is a good thing - it was a huge relief yesterday when India came out and wasted the first session. Two for thirty odd in the best part of two hours was dreadful stuff and allowed the Aussies to dictate the tone of the day, despite Tendulk... sorry, The Little Master Maestro's attacking 62.
Not surprisingly, Spanky turned his analogies, metaphors and similies loose on Dravid:
RAHUL Dravid endured a day of torment at the MCG. At any rate it seemed like a day. Apparently his desperate effort lasted only 103 minutes but time hung heavily over the ground. Pressed into service as an opener, he poked around anxiously, seeking a humble run and the relief that it might bring. After an eternity he opened his account, but before long he was trudging back to the pavilion, wondering what had possessed him to take up batting.
Ian Chappell could be right: India need to look at selecting Verandah Slog and moving Dravid back down the order. The caveat, of course, is that Slog's been playing like a slug and his selection would be a gamble. What's more, Straya seem to have worked him out. In 2003/04 he was allowed to stand and swing and picked up a squillion runs square of the wicket. There's nothing more galling than batsmen being gifted easy runs in their hitting zones, but 2004 in India Ponting employed sweepers on both sides of the wicket which meant Slog's main source of supply was dried up and he had to start improvising to find runs elsewhere. It was one of the first obvious differences between Ponting and Steve Waugh. So it was good to see Ponting doing the same thing yesterday. By employing an in-out field, all the Indian batsmen, including TLM, had to hit out of their comfort zones to eke runs from odd places. That's when they were bothered eke-ing for runs. Have you seen a modern Test side turn threes into twos and twos into ones quite like India did yesterday?
Or was it the pitch? There have been countless column inches written on the state of the MCG wicket, but no one seems to be able to say with any conviction whether it's a good or bad deck. It reminds me of the MCG pitches from the seventies and eighties. Itâs not as low, slow and crumbly as then, mind, but given the number of batsmen who got out to bad shots, it could well be one of those pitches that are easy to get in on, but hard to stay in on. The ones that kept low, greater in number on day two than day one, would certainly have played on the minds of the Indian batsmen, but then Flatty and Hungry came out swinging. Still, whatever you think of the deck, Lee and Clark were special, Johnston was steady and Hoggy bowled a lot better than 2/82 looks on paper. Clark was obviously the pick and of the doubters mentioned in the press Iâm sure Travis Bichel, for one, will revisit his opinion that Larry Tait should have come in for Clark.
But Bruceâs last point is a disturbing one which, I assume, echoes all out thoughts: a 400 lead is not enough. If the Indian bowlers can roll us today, they, more than any side in world cricket, are capable of chasing a target on a low, slow pitch.
Peter English on NGASAEB:
Setting targets is one of the great games played by a team in command. Australia have done it a lot under Ricky Ponting and he still doesn't know when a chase is too small. At home, he has not lost a Test and he has become less generous in the size of his declarations over the past couple of years.
Become less generous? I'd suggest targets of, in decending order, 648 in Brisbane against England, 557 in Perth against England, 506 against the Shrees in Hobart and now 499 against India in Melbourne is quite the reverse; numerically, anyway. What's more, if we assume that India are a better batting side than all the others; that India are more comfortable on low-slow tracks than all the others; that the weather is not going to be a factor, unless you pity Straya out there in the scorching Calcut... Melbourne sun; and that we are now down two bowling greats, then a target of 499 is significantly more generous than the others. Nor should you discount the fact that in all those Tests, batting a further hour or so would not have made any difference to the result.
Greg Baum on something Wicky mentioned yesterday:
A CRICKET pitch is like an umpire, politician or mother-in-law: it's always to blame. Pitches are either too slow or (rarely) too fast, bounce too low or (rarely) too high, are too flat or menacing to life and limb. None are made as for the wee baby bear, just right.
Rudely, fingers are pointing at this one, and at the whole concept of drop-in pitches. But why? Certainly, it is a piebald thing, bare at the southern end, thatched at the other.
But the three days of this match have yielded 9-337, 11-234 and 7-325 respectively, a feast of cricket.
Without doubt this has been an enthralling Test. Sadly, though, an enthralling Test that ends early is bad news for the Test hosts, who fail to meet budgeted attendance estimates, and the official broadcasters, who lose advertising revenue. For them, boring long is better than enthralling short. So don't expect the people who run the game to start calling for difficult decks.
(That's not even getting started on limited overs cricket where a significant percentage of "memorable" matches have been played on difficult tracks.)
As for yesterday's play. Well, the Strayan batsmen still got out to dumb shots, but at least they had their heads down and scored runs before the dumbness. A lot of the runs were scored with the assistance of the dreadful - "languid" according to Kerry O'K - Indian ground fielding which kept giving us quick singles, turned ones into twos and twos into threes. What's more, Ponting should have let our batsmen score more. But at least they didn't get rolled for an ugly low total, leaving an eminently gettable target.
Not that the experts agree with us here at AGB mansions. The pundits have ritually informed us, and with palpable certainty, that Straya are going to win comfortably because the pitch is getting more difficult - as opposed to "harder" which is easier - to bat on, so who am I to argue... fingers crossed.
The choke's on them:
HAVING found a new way to win - by suffocation - Australia's increasingly dominant cricketers will march to Sydney intent on squeezing more life out of India's champion batsmen and on equalling their own world-record streak after demolishing Anil Kumble's team inside four days at the MCG.
One of the more infuriating things for cricket fans, apart from "wickets" off no balls, dropped catches, missed stumpings, wasted wickets, overthrows, sloppy fielding, Nathan Bracken's hair/head-band and John Bracewell, is leaking easy runs.
It used to shit me to tears when Steve Waugh set full-on attacking fields, confident he had runs to spare. Yeah, so he won plenty, but I still didn't like it when he gave up easy runs. Personally, I just didn't see the need.
One of the things I liked about the Windies in the 1980s was that as soon as a batsmen had scored in a certain area - mainly fine leg or third man, since they rarely pitched it up - Lloyd or Richards would immediately block off the shot. It didn't seem to stop their juggernaut. Having a gun side helped.
The sub-text of the Windies' tactics was that the bowlers bowled to their fields: short of a length with a field to suit.
Waugh would have wanted disciplined bowling, too, but if it went tits up like, say, Calcutta in 2001, he was stuck for answers; worse than that, the bowlers would go looking for wickets in the wrong places.
Take UnZud in 2001. The Kiwis planned to leave most everything outside off, which lured the Aussie bowlers into bowling "to them" only to be picked off through the leg side.
Ponting isn't like that.
It's not that Waugh was a dummy and Ponting a clever-clogs, it's just that while Waugh might over-attack, and then occasionally lose his way, Ponting has fine tuned Waugh's attack with some cleverly targeted defence, Windies style.
I mentioned Verandah Slog up above. In 2004 [Correction!]
Ponting Gilly & Ponting blocked off his scoring zones, which meant he had to go looking for runs with riskier shots. Here in Melbourne Ponting employed an in-out field with a variety of short covers, short mid ons, short mid offs, and judiciously placed sweepers. He blocked, for example, Wee Wee Luckshmun's flick through mid wicket. This meant, especially on a sluggish MCG, the Indian batsmen had their scoring zones covered and their runs dried up.
Naturally, the bowlers had set roles. It would have been madness for Punter, and not a little galling for us punters, had he set an offside field, 6/3 for instance, and then the bowlers put it on the batsmen's pads.
With that in mind, Straya picked three quicks Clark, Johnston and Lee and told them to just ping, ping, ping in the same spot, then backed them with appropriate fields.
Johnston wasn't plonking the ball outside off because, coincidentally, that's the way it was coming out of his hand; he was doing it because Ponting had told him to do so and then covered the offside in the right places. If the Indians wanted to score big off him, they had to go over the top, or risk a tug through the onside. The bonus was Johnston had the ball wiggling around, luring the batsmen into slashy prospecting. All he needs now is to develop one that ducks back a-la the Zack Zaheer no-ball that "got" Sideshow Roy.
Clark, of course, was Clark. Say no more.
And Lee has curbed his youthful zest - revisit, if you have the stomach, his rubbish to Pietersen at the Oval in 2005 - and turned into a much more disciplined L-Flinger.
Naturally, none of them lived by line-and-length alone. There were just enough bouncers to mix things up and force the batsmen onto the back foot, but not too many.
And Hogga is not the best leggy of all time, or the tightest, but while batsmen continue to misread his variations, he will be a valuable member of the team; he can bat, too, which is more than you can say for Stewie Whatsisname.
Which leads me to, in an extraordinarily smooth segue, today's Age.
SHANE Warne called him a goose and Ian Chappell said his own daughter could have coached the Australian side with more success. Both were terribly insulting comments from two icons of Australian cricket directed at former national coach John Buchanan. Both men are entitled to their opinions â they have earned that right â but seriously, men, what was the point? The comments were juvenile and out of order; neither offered any constructive analysis but were just harmful character assassinations.
Ian Chappell the commentator, as opposed to Ian Chappell the blowhard - there is a distinction - would hardly expect to commentate without a director. Someone needs to steer the good ship Nine.
It's not like it was in the old days: Ian McGillivray knocking a pencil on the desk and calling the game from a wire service. Nine has all sorts of technical and cosmetic details that need attending to: commentators, statisticians, cameras, microphones, dials and... errr, knobs.
Chappelli can take a stab at them all if he wants, especially the role of head knob, but I'm sure you'll agree the coverage would be a complete f**k up. (Stop right there. While there is plenty to take pot-shots at, Nine do a professional job.)
So if he's prepared to accept Nine's professional advances since 1979, then surely - surely! - he has to accept cricket's professional progress. To do otherwise would be both pigheaded and, as Chuck Berry writes, juvenile.
It's here the role of Simpson, Marsh, Buchanan and now Tim Nielsen has guided Strayan cricket's professional progress.
Let's face it, all Strayan Test cricketers can bat, bowl, field and combinations thereof. If you've ever played cricket you know how good grade cricketers are, how good state cricketers are, and in turn, how much better Test cricketers are. Understatement alert: Test cricketers can play a bit.
But it's what the coaching and research have been able to add to that raw talent that has made Straya what they are today.
There is no way Ponting alone could cover the myriad demands imposed on a coach, captain, fitness guru, bowling coach, batting coach, spin coach, fielding coach, coaching coach, etc.
But feed him all the necessary information and you get what you got yesterday: a versatile plan carried out by a variety of bowlers bowling to a variety of specific fields based on a variety of research done by a variety of specialist coaches all marshalled by what the Yanks would call a Head Coach.
What's more, if Chappelli has access to the developments afforded modern cricketers, including a Head Coach, he would have had ten times the success he had back when Les Favell was telling him what to do.
Did I mention India had no Head Coach? They have an Almost Head Coach, but for some strange reason Gary Kirsten in only along for the ride.
Of course, it could all go to shit in Sydney. The toss of a coin, a dud decision, a dropped chance, another "wicket" off a no ball. TLM has a day out. The SCG is smaller, too, so containment is less achievable than it is on a bigger MCG.
Still, the scene is set for Straya to equal their run of sixteen victories that ended in Calcutta in 2001; only this time when you put eleven talented India cricketers with their lack of attention to detail and "languid" fielding up against talented Straya Inc with all its advances in the last six years... well, you've got to concede that we have a head start.
As Tony Grieg put it yesterday: "This fifteenth win is hot foot on their previous record."