When Mitchell Starc leaned into the end of his run-up to deliver the first ball of India’s innings,either his recent past or the immediate future occupied the depths of his mind. For had he lived in the present,Shikhar Dhawan would have been out without having faced a ball on his Test debut.
The Australian fast bowler,in his side’s just completed first essay,had excruciatingly been dismissed on 99. Starc’s wicket soon brought an end to Australia’s innings with minutes to go for lunch,for a series high of 408. Now,he had just one over before the nutrition break to make the first session,and perhaps the remainder of the day,truly his.
First ball,a heavy-headed Starc ran in to bowl at the striker,Murali Vijay. But en route to his delivery stride,Starc’s bowling hand clipped the stumps in front of the umpire. And as the bails fell to the ground,non-striker Dhawan had backed up a little too far.
Had Starc or any of the Australian fielders around appealed at this point,Dhawan would have been left to wallow in his anonymity,ending his first Test innings for a zero-ball 0. Instead,just an hour and a half after lunch,they watched him become a household name around the cricket world.
“At lunch,I had a laugh. By getting out before the innings even started,I would have made some kind of record on debut,” Dhawan said later. Records he would break,but of a far more significant kind. On Saturday,the 27-year old became the fastest centurion for a debutant. In Test history,he was the only first-timer to get there in less than 90 balls. Eighty five,to be precise. It took him all of one session,between lunch and tea. Then he scored nearly another hundred in the next,halting 15 runs short as he slowed down for the first time in his Test career as stumps approached. India,within the space of just 58 overs,were just 125 behind.
Somewhere,in some unseen area of the ground,Vijay also played cricket. He scored 83 invisible runs.
False start for Australia
With the score at 283 for no loss and all their wickets intact,Dhawan and Vijay ensured that the home side will be asking the tricky questions for the rest of the match from their dressing room. Their opponents,however,will have a few of their own too. Before taking the field on Day Four,Michael Clarke will surely want to know just how his side went from having their best day of the series to perhaps the worst. And how on earth should they stop these two. It might seem like a stretch,but going by Australia’s ineptness with the ball and the openers’ comfort on this Mohali wicket,a declaration seems more likely than the fall of an Indian wicket. To know why,one just has to glance into the two wicketless session today.
Just after lunch on Saturday,it all began with a handshake. Dhawan,facing the fourth ball of his career,climbed above a short ball from Starc and stabbed it to point for his first run. He must have been relieved,for Dhawan smiled as Vijay walked over to congratulate him for it. Amused,the close-in fielders found it funny too. However,it would be the last time any of them would be seen giggling for the rest of the day.
No one laughed,or moved for that matter,as Dhawan got behind a Peter Siddle delivery the next over. With minimum fuss,he dismissed it through the covers for four. A couple of balls later,Siddle banged it in rib-wards to see if Dhawan could play on the leg side as well. He could,as the meat of the bat pulled it away on the front foot to the square-leg hoardings. It would be one of his few non-carpet shots of the day.
Clarke replaced Siddle with Moises Henriques. Henriques got the ball the angle away from Dhawan. On the up,he drove it between mid-off and covers for four. Clarke put a fielder there and Henriques pitched it up,inviting the drive. It was gladly accepted as Dhawan pierced it between the two covers fielders for another boundary.
A helpless Clarke now truly populated the off-side and brought on Xavier Doherty,hoping that the left-arm spinner’s natural turn might help stop Dhawan from hitting against it. As Doherty tossed it up,Dhawan placed it between point and a finer point with perfection. Then Doherty bowled it short,only for the batsman to leave a square cover gaping. It took him to 52,with 48 of them in exquisite boundaries.
Doherty would once again be at the receiving end as the batsman’s quest for a debut hundred began. But only this time,Dhawan,batting on 69,was in the mood for some in-crease entertainment. He swept,reverse-swept and paddle-scooped the first three fours of the over,before finding more joy in leaving his crease. He sweetly whistled the fourth between four (yes,four) cover fielders.
Now he liked to shimmy down. Now he would greet Nathan Lyon with his feet,meet Siddle at his bounce and stroke Steven Smith inside out to collect all those landmarks (100 and 150),and no-one could do a thing. For this muted response,however,they had only themselves to blame. For had they even made an half-hearted appeal the first time Dhawan left the white line behind,his innings would have ended even before it had really started.