MS Dhoni had let two of the three previous deliveries sail past an exaggeratedly withdrawn bat and pop into Brad Haddins gloves behind the stumps. When Ben Hilfenhaus delivered the fourth ball of Indias 51st over,Dhoni ran yards down the wicket,saw the ball start to curl away from him again,and let it pass once more.
The methods may have been unorthodox,and a touch comical to the 35,510 gathered to watch Day One of the 100th Test staged at the Sydney Cricket Ground. But the principles were sound,and Indias skipper had looked in no trouble in reaching 35 from 51 deliveries. The sun was out,the ball had lost its shine and the wicket was losing its early juice.
Had Indias top order seen out a testing early period,his decision to bat first would have looked a no-brainer. Unfortunately,just as conditions were looking ideal for batting,India were six down for 161. Dhoni would soon find himself stranded on 57,last man standing in a total of 191. In the second innings at the MCG,India were bowled out for 169. But this was a first innings effort. It was a new low,even if India came into the match on the back of five successive away defeats. In each of those defeats,they had managed to cross 200 in the first innings.
On the eve of the match,Dhoni had spoken about the need to make the Australian bowlers work harder for their wickets. We should force them to bowl into our areas, he had said.
Unfortunately,the top order hadnt really followed that maxim. Gautam Gambhir fell for zero,in the very first over of the day,to that familiar indecisive poke once again. To be fair to him,though,that particular ball from James Pattinson would have removed a lot of left-handers,starting on leg and middle and angled across and passing very close to off stump if not hitting it. Rahul Dravid,unusually,was out to a fast bowler off a bat-pad catch at short leg.
But the two batsmen who followed Dravid into the dressing room were out in entirely predictable manner. Virender Sehwag,who had already been dropped once at second slip and escaped numerous plays-and-misses,was caught behind poking at a Pattinson away-swinger outside off. VVS Laxman edged a loose drive to third slip.
Neither batsman moved his feet. Both have succeeded in the past,even in testing conditions,with minimal footwork. But in those innings,they both made adjustments,cutting out certain shots,leaving a lot of deliveries,and working out a way to make runs.
Here,however,only a couple of the Indian batsmen seemed to have plans for the conditions and the attack facing them. Sachin Tendulkar has looked purposeful right through this trip,decisive with his footwork,aware of his off stumps whereabouts and always on the lookout for balls in certain zones. To deliveries pitched short,he has swayed back and looked to uppercut. Balls on his legs he has worked away meticulously. The ones pitched up he has met with a big stride and a fluent bat-swing.
Unfortunately for him,the cover drive has been a mixed bag,fetching him a number of glorious fours but also causing both dismissals at the MCG. Here,after moving serenely to 41,he inside-edged another attempted cover drive directed squarer,with an unusual amount of bottom-hand onto his stumps to give Pattinson his fourth wicket.
On this ground eight years ago,Tendulkar famously made a double century without a single cover drive in it. He has been in far better form on this trip,so its unlikely hell resort to such a drastic measure in his remaining innings,but it will be interesting to see whether he changes his game in any way from the second innings on.
Dhoni,meanwhile,remained true to his pre-match statements,and left doggedly outside his off stump. He also figured out a couple of strokes that would safely prove profitable for him.
Early on in his innings,he cut Hilfenhaus twice in two balls,waiting for the outswing and chopping down late,between point and gully. The first shot fetched him two runs,the second four.
When he was on 15,Pattinson dropped one short. Dhoni swivelled and pulled it for four,powerfully and with control. It was a shot he would repeat on a number of occasions,never once looking hurried.
Later,when he got to terms with conditions,he brought out the big drive through cover,but crucially waited for balls full enough for the stroke. On too many recent occasions,including the first innings at Melbourne,he has simply stood and hacked away outside off. Here,he looked to have learned from past mistakes. Unfortunately,too few of the Indian batsmen could say they had done that.