Sourav Ganguly was promised a lot of chin music when he arrived in Australia. This Sunday afternoon Ganguly presented his own composition and the Australians were left facing the music. Ganguly scored his maiden Test century in Australia and made the Aussie bowlers look pedestrian.
In what has been one of India's best days overseas in years, a 146 run partnership for the fifth wicket between centurion Ganguly and V V S Laxman, who scored a belligerent 75, saw India end the day at 362-6 off 105 overs, leading the hosts by a handy 39 runs.
Today was a day of firsts and oddities. Rarely does one see skipper Steve Waugh clueless and facing a fusillade from the opposition; rarely does a visiting side score 351 runs in a day's work against Australia, especially not India, who failed to touch 300 even once on their last tour here; rarely does India lose Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar cheaply in the same over and yet pile up a 350 plus total on foreign land; rarely does a visiting team overhaul Australia at home in the first innings.
Though this Test seems to be heading for a draw, India have made a statement right at the start of the series and forced the bookmakers to recalibrate the odds.
For India, it was the perfect start in years on Australian soil after Damien Martyn dropped a simple offering at third slip off Virender Sehwag. After that, Sehwag, under pressure to perform after a string of low scores, spiced up proceedings, picking Andy Bichel for three consecutive boundaries early in the session.
After driving Bichel straight down the ground, Sehwag clipped the bowler, who drifted down leg, to the square-leg fence. Another four to the long-on boundary saw a pallid Aussie bowling attack feel the heat. The bowlers failed to exert pressure on the Indian openers, who only got better with every passing minute at the crease.
Chopra, following his script with precision, was like a barricade for the Aussie bowlers, serenely blocking off their challenge.
When on song, Sehwag's batting is fetching, but lacks the structure for a long innings. His nemesis, left-arm pacer Nathan Bracken, had him edging one that swerved in a tad after pitching and flew to Matthew Hayden at first slip. It was Hayden's 50th catch in Tests and Sehwag walked back unhappy to have given it away after getting in for 45.
The last time the Indians were Down Under, the opening partnerships in the three Tests were 7, 0, 11, 5, 10 and 22. And since that Test series in 1999-2000, the average opening stand in away Tests has been 22, with the first wicket falling inside the first 10 overs 78 per cent of the time.
Rahul Dravid walked out to reassert his credentials as one of the world's finest Test batsmen having failed on India's last time of Australia. Eleven balls later, Gillespie forced him to reach for one that swung away a tad, taking an edge to Hayden at first slip. Dravid was gone for 1 and the pressure was back on India.
Born and brought up on Aussie wickets, Gillespie bowled the ideal length, giving the ball a chance to swing by pitching it up and forcing the batsmen to come on the front foot. Visiting teams often make the mistake of bowling too short and fast, getting excited by watching the ball carry to the 'keeper.
Three balls later, in the same over, Tendulkar shouldered arms to a delivery that pitched outside off and nipped back in to hit him high up on the pads. Gillespie appealed cursorily, dropped his head, and turned to return to the top of his bowling mark only to see umpire Steve Bucknor raising his finger.
The wicket should have rightly been credited to Bucknor rather than Gillespie. Tendulkar, who seldom betrays any emotion, was shocked. His look said it all; yet, with the quiet dignity that has earned him the respect of his opponents, he walked off, disappointed but not disgraced, for a duck. The ball would have clearly gone over the stumps and the replays only confirmed Bucknor's goofup.
Way back in the 1992 World Cup final between England and Pakistan, medium-pacer Derek Pringle had Javed Miandad bang in front of the wicket, only to have Bucknor turn down the appeal. This is what Pringle told rediff.com during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa while reliving the turning point of that match.
"The key was umpire Steve Bucknor not giving Javed Miandad lbw when he was on one off me. It was plumb! Even Javed knew he was out. There was a big crowd in and the umpire maybe thought that if he gave Javed out early we would be all going home early and it would be a disappointment. I don't know what went through his mind, but I thought it was one of the most plumb lbw decisions. That was the turning point for me."
A quietly confident Ganguly walked out to bat, promoting himself ahead of Laxman, with India looking down the barrel at 62-3. In a manner that defines the very essence of good leadership, Ganguly took it upon himself to face the music and batted with a positive frame of mind. With Chopra, he piled up a 65 run partnership as India went into lunch at 127-3.
Ganguly, on a jaunty 37 off 58 balls, had batted with unwavering confidence while Chopra was gritting it out with a watchful 36 off 131 balls.
Gillespie got the session off by setting up Akash Chopra in the first over after lunch. He pitched two deliveries up and then pulled the length back to induce an edge with Chopra shaping to drive through the covers. Chopra was gone without adding to his morning session score after having batted for three hours and ensuring that one end was anchored for the stroke-makers to play freely. If only he can start looking for the quick singles and punish the loose balls, we have an opener who can help this Indian team look more complete.
Ganguly raced to his fifty with his seventh boundary off merely 74 balls and the fluency of his strokes was comforting. The most outstanding part of Ganguly's batting was the confidence with which he evaded the short stuff, never for once letting it disconcert him.
Homeboy Andy Bichel was easily the weak link in the Australian attack and the Indian batsmen made him pay. Bichel was mauled after Ganguly reached his half-century. In the last over before the drinks break, the skipper smacked the Queenslander for three fours bringing up the fifty run partnership for the fifth wicket with Laxman.
The Indians reached 200 in the 60th over, as Ganguly and Laxman were only dealing in boundaries. Bichel and leg-spinner Stuart MacGill, who failed to make an impression against the Indians, were mercilessly pulled and smashed across the park.
It was as if Laxman and Ganguly had divided the ground between them. While Ganguly ripped the offside field set by Steve Waugh, Laxman was unchallenged playing his shots through the onside. Unconventional field placements, like a silly mid-on and two short covers for Laxman, proved futile. The 100 of the partnership came off just 138 balls with Laxman registering yet another half-century against the Australians.
At the crease were two artistes with contrasting styles, painting the ground with their strokes and making their performances count. While some players possess spades of talent sans the artistry, Laxman and Ganguly showed that they had the hunger for victory to go with the beauty of their talent.
Not once did Ganguly seem unsure of his ability as he raced towards his maiden hundred in Australia. For years he has been wrestling with criticism of having failed to register Test hundreds against top sides like Australia, South Africa and Pakistan. But he finally reached the magical three-figure mark on Australian soil and leapt to acknowledge the entire Indian dressing room applauding their captain's reassuring innings. His hundred came off just 135 balls with 13 fours.
The innings was all the more remarkable for having come under enormous pressure. What could be more difficult than witnessing his top batsmen, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, return to the hut having scored just one run between them? Even the Australians, who have often in the past made their dislike and grudging respect for Ganguly clear, applauded the captain's knock.
When tea was taken, Ganguly returned to the pavilion with the satisfied smile of someone who knows something the rest of the world does not. No one had given Ganguly much of a chance in this series while anticipating the batting exploits of Tendulkar and Dravid. This innings has been the best thing to have happened so far to Ganguly, who has quietly worked on his game for this daunting tour.
Former Australian captain Greg Chappell, who worked with Ganguly in August this year, revealed that the Indian skipper had worked more on the area between the ears than his actual performance on the square.
India, thus, went to tea at 252-4 with Laxman batting on 60, eyeing a hundred, and Ganguly keen to translate his innings into a tall score. The duo had added 125 runs in 171 balls scoring at a very Australian 4.2 runs an over. Ganguly was easily zipping along at a faster rate, having got 64 of the 125 runs in 79 balls, while Laxman collected 60 off 92 balls.
The early loss of Laxman, who was caught for 75 at point cutting MacGill uppishly, derailed the momentum the Indian innings had gathered in the post-lunch session. The 146 run partnership off 34 overs at a rate of 4.29 symbolised one of India's finest days in Australia.
Ganguly was unable to get going early on in the last session of the day and losing Laxman early made runs hard to come by. The cherubic Parthiv Patel was unsure at the wicket and the early part of the session saw half a dozen maidens bowled, including by Bichel, the bowler who was hammered the most by the Indians.
But presently Ganguly upped the tempo and the runs flowed again. In quick time the Patel-Ganguly pair had stitched together a fifty-run partnership as India overhauled the Australian total.
The curtains were finally drawn on Ganguly's masterpiece as he smashed MacGill straight to Gillespie at mid-off. The captain's 144 off 196 balls were scored at a frenetic strike rate of 73 runs per 100 balls.
If Tendulkar's dismissal was the travesty of the day, Ajit Agarkar provided probably the funniest moment. The Mumbai all-rounder walked out carrying the burden of five consecutive ducks from India's last tour of Australia (and two more at home in the historic 2001 series) and as soon as he scored his first run raised his bat in acknowledgement like a batsman reaching a milestone, drawing a huge round of cheer and applause from even the partisan crowd.
Patel, meanwhile, continued to bat with cautious aggression, remaining unbeaten on 37 when the day's play, extended to make up for some of the rain delays on the first three days, finally ended on account of bad light with about half-a-dozen overs still to be bowled.