Yesterday was the start of the Spring Racing Carnival here in Australia, which meant that yours truly spent most of the day at Royal Randwick drinking sparkling wine, placing bets and watching Sydney favourite Hot Danish win her race (she had to dig deep to pull it off this time, but she's a courageous little mare who likes to win and she looked so very pleased with herself after the race). Did I wear a hat? Indeed I did.
Anyway, due to the races and my own utter klutziness with the Foxtel IQ machine, I missed the better of Day 2 of the India v Australia Test. (I managed to record the pre-match show, but not the actual game, so had to settle for highlights.) But from what I did see, I would say that as a proper Test between two classy, competitive teams should, both Day 2 and Day 3 had plenty of pleasure combined with a bit of heartache and pain.
Tim Paine was a pleasure. Although not, it has to be said, to begin with. To begin with, his batting looked ... timid: his first 8 runs were scored off 56 balls. It is hard to know whether this was due to nerves or to his unfamiliarity with Indian wickets or just the generally leisurely pace of the Australian batting at the point he came to the crease or something else entirely or all of the above. I doubt he was helped by Watson's apparent inability to rotate the strike. It actually took Paine some 100 balls for his batting to pick up. But once he got that maiden Test half-century under his belt, his batting improved, both in terms of quality and speed. That sort of thing is bound to help. I think it also helped that he scored some nice boundaries in the process. Possibly watching Mitch Johnson's happy and rather brawny batting at the other end once Watson finally got out helped as well. Paine did ride his luck — he was both dropped and had some balls slip in between and past the slippers — but he also played some fine and fluid, soft-handed and at times intelligent, shots. It was towards the end hard to remember that this is only his third Test match for Australia. It took a new ball, some clever bowling from Khan, and a phenomenal catch by VVS Laxman in the slips to eventually get rid of him, 8 runs short of a maiden Test century. I am sorry, Brad Haddin, but I think Australia should stick with this Paine.
Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag were also pleasures. Of course, for an Australian they were a guilty, slightly masochistic pleasure, but still ... I do not actually know that much about Khan (by which I mean his bowling, obviously), but I am under the impression that in the past few years he has developed into the rock of the Indian bowling attack. In some snippet, pre-match interviews with the Australian players, they all expressed their respect for the bowling pair of Khan and Sharma, and confessed to the difficulty of facing them. Robbed of his tandem partner for most of the first innings in this Test, Khan had to shoulder not only increased responsibility for taking wickets, but also an increased workload. He came through with flying colours. He had the Australian batsmen tangled up, caught them lbw, bowled them, and had them caught behind. He richly deserved his 5 wickets. In fact, were it not for the rather delicious Harbhajan-and-Gamhir-at-short-leg show (snaring both Watson and Hauritz), I would say that Khan deserved more than 5 wickets. He was tired at the end, but he was on top. India is very lucky to have him. India is, of course, also very lucky to have Virender Sehwag. In fact, I think the world is. After the Australian top order's slow and at times almost tortuous batting, Sehwag came in and gave a masterclass in swift, entertaining, and brutally punishing batting, scoring 59 runs at a strike rate of 109.25. One of things I really admire about Sehwag is how at ease he appears to be with himself and his style of batting. I once saw an interview with him after he he had holed out on 99 in some, if I remember correctly, ODI in Tasmania. Did he regret playing an attacking shot when he easily could have defended instead, he was asked. No, he smiled, it happens; that's the way I play. And he seemed to mean it too. What I am trying to illustrate with this vignette is that Sehwag knows that he is an attacking batsman and that he is happy to accept both the pros and the cons that go with it, rather than trying to change into something he is not. Watching Sehwag, I was actually thinking of Michael Clarke (which might seem an odd thing to say since their batting styles are not particularly similar). But: Clarke is a batsman who has not quite, I believe, lived up to his initial promise. He used to be such fun to watch, Clarke: his footwork was excellent and he used to take on spinners by dancing way down wicket to put his bat to whatever they offered. Well, obviously it didn't always come off — not everything comes off when you are a young, eager, early-twenties something player, no matter how talented — and he was rather heavily criticised (by, among others, former Australian Captain, Steve Waugh) for his 'poor shot selection' and for a while he was dropped. When he came back he had changed: there was very little of the 'dancing down the wicket with gay abandon to take on some spinner', there was, instead, an awful lot of defending. And I am not sure that really suits Clarke. Admittedly, he has done well, but he has not done exceptionally well ... and at one stage in his career, it actually looked as if he might. In Swedish I would say 'synd på så rara ärtor' ('pity on such pretty peas') and I would mean that it is a sad waste. Something I would never say about Sehwag.
Another Australian pleasure was Mitchell Johnson. After a painful series against Pakistan where he at times got very little right, here he batted well and bowled even better. Of the Australian bowlers, he was certainly the pick and reasonably go what in Shane Warne terminology is known as a Pfeiffer. He seems quite an emotional player, Mitch: when he is happy, he bats and bowls well. Or maybe India just suits him?
And there was pain.
Primarily, perhaps, there was the heartache and pain of seeing Sachin Tendulkar caught lbw by, of all people, Marcus North, 2 runs short of a century.
There was the pain of watching Shane Watson fielding: in the slips he was mostly inelegant and ungainly; in the outfield ... well, let's just say that he should have caught Raina but did not. It hurts just thinking about it. (There was, of course, also his somewhat controversial slip catch of Dhoni, who was given out after referral by the umpires; Watson himself immediately said that he did not know. I thought it looked out, I but understand people who think that it was not entirely clear whether it was Watson's pinky or the ground underneath the ball and that therefore, the batsman should be given the benefit of the doubt, i.e., not be given out. I just disagree with it, that's all. I also disagree with the television commentator who claimed that the ball bounced on the ground in front of Watson's hands. It clearly did not. If the ball touched the ground at all, it would have been because Watson grounded it while cupping his hands around it. That is why that pinky is of importance.) Incidentally, I thought Dhoni looked a little tired. I do not think I have seen him quite so fumbly with the gloves before. If he is, it is quite understandable: he must have played an awful lot of cricket recently and seeing that he is, I believe, the Captain of all the sides he plays in, he has an awful lot of responsibility to go with it. I forget who now, but somebody argued not so long ago, that it would not, perhaps, be an entirely bad idea for Dhoni to give up the gloves in Test cricket. I know absolutely nothing about Indian wicket keepers, but it might be worth considering: I think India needs Dhoni more as a Captain than as a wicket keeper.
With two days left of this Test, both teams have finished their first innings and the scores are more or less even. Considering that India was one bowler short (Ishant Sharma was troubled by his knee, but looked, I would have to say, rather rusty and not at his best even when he was not) and also one mid-order batsman (VVS Laxman apparently suffered from some back problem; he looked terribly stiff and uncomfortable during his short stay at the crease — I really wonder whether we will see him fielding tomorrow), I would still say that India has a nose in front. That said, I doubt we will get a result. But it has been a quite entertaining Test — at times almost amazingly so. For better AND worse. In all, it has been a pleasure.