Clarke helps Australia pass spin test


Not a single observer on the opening day of India’s series against Australia was surprised by the sight of Michael Clarke conjuring his side’s spinal innings. And not one of them would have been game to predict that Clarke’s partner for a rousing stand of 151, after some major early stutters on a parched pitch, would be the debutant Moises Henriques.
Arriving at the wicket soon after lunch, his team floundering at 153 for 5, Henriques showed enormous composure and exemplary technique to construct a supporting innings in the company of his captain, fulfilling the potential first evident when he starred for Australia’s Under-19 World Cup team when only 16 years old a decade ago. Clarke’s century, which took him past Sir Donald Bradman on the nation’s list of Test aggregates, was less of a surprise but no less an achievement, his pacing and poise only briefly interrupted at a critical moment shortly before tea.
India’s outstanding bowler R Ashwin appealed vehemently for a bat-pad catch, and replays showed a fat inside edge. Seldom have India cursed the lack of DRS given their opposition to its vagaries, but they were left to gnash their teeth this time. A wicket then would have opened up Australia’s tail to a ball that was reverse swinging and spinning. Instead Clarke and Henriques were not separated until the final half-hour, the allrounder missing a sweep at Ashwin before Ravindra Jadeja skidded one past Mitchell Starc.
Clarke had showed rare glee at winning the toss on a surface more clay court than cricket pitch, and the visitors made a rapid start before stuttering twice. First when Ed Cowan’s intemperate charge down the wicket was followed by the swift exit of a vulnerable Phillip Hughes, and again when Shane Watson, David Warner and Matthew Wade fell swiftly after lunch.
Ashwin gained spin, dip and bounce while harvesting six wickets, but the rest tended to pitch too short and gave the Australians room to manoeuvre the ball around the MA Chidambaram Stadium. Ishant Sharma and the debutant Bhuvneshwar Kumar appeared peripheral members of the attack; the omitted Pragyan Ojha can feel justly aggrieved.
Cowan and Warner made a cheery start, swatting the ball around with ease against Kumar and Ishant. Warner was the scratchier of the two, having batted properly in the nets for only a few days before the match due to his rehab from a fractured thumb. Twice Ashwin beat Warner outside off stump, first drawing an edge that an incredulous Virender Sehwag contrived to spill at slip, then creating a difficult stumping chance that MS Dhoni failed to complete due to the bounce extracted.
Meanwhile Cowan looked serene, so much so that he advanced to loft Harbhajan down the ground for only the second six of his 14-Test career. If that stroke showed how good Cowan was feeling, his next aggressive measure was to smack of misplaced comfort. Trying to belt another six, he was beaten by Ashwin’s greater drop and bounce, and failed to get back to his crease before Dhoni tipped the bails off. On the first morning of the series, it was hard to imagine a more wasteful exit.
Unlike Cowan, Hughes had failed to make a decent score in the warm-up, and his indecisiveness was evident in a stay that featured plenty of shuffling and ended with a horrid, half-hearted cut at Ashwin that dragged the ball onto leg stump. Watson found the middle of the bat from his first ball, and with Warner had formed the foundation of a potentially handsome union by lunch.
However the interval disrupted their rhythm, and moments after resumption Watson was pinned lbw on the crease by a quicker, straighter delivery that skidded. Warner fell in similar fashion, fooled by Ashwin’s change in trajectory and struck in front on the back foot when he might have leaned forward.
Wade fought to get himself established but on 12 was too imprecise with placement of bat and pad and was ruled lbw to an offbreak that pitched on middle and straightened. After their rapid start Australia were sinking fast.
Henriques walked to the middle in this dire scenario, but showed the good sense of a maturing cricketer, and the skills of one raised on Sydney’s often slow and turning pitches. He helped Clarke in manning the pumps, then setting a steady course, and was not unduly troubled despite the pitch’s tendency to offer the odd ball that jumped and fizzed or scuttled through low.
Ashwin was absent for most of this phase, inconvenienced by a jammed finger. His return to the crease should have brought an instant wicket in the shadows of the tea break, as Clarke squeezed off bat and pad to short leg. But the umpire Kumar Dharmasena was deaf to the appeals. Clarke’s mastery of body language was apparent, too, holding the bat up and re-marking his guard as though nothing had happened.
Aware of how the afternoon began, Clarke and Henriques did not dally after tea, jumping on India’s bowlers with intent. Their attack soon had Dhoni reverting to the timid captaincy and modest field placings he has become increasingly reliant upon in recent times, and the hosts’ bowling and fielding lost much of their earlier vim.
Clarke appeared handicapped by a sore right shoulder at times, but was otherwise in control. Henriques, his confidence growing by the ball, did not look like getting out until he aimed a sweep at Ashwin in the 90th over of play, Marais Erasmus handing a line-ball verdict to the hosts. Starc’s swift exit provided a reminder of what may have unfolded had the tail been exposed earlier, but Clarke was still there at the close, going to his hundred with a lofted drive. With Henriques’ help, he had given Australia a chance.