McGrath and Warne crush India's spirit

Australia 474 and 228 India 246 and 105-6
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The Independent Online

It probably renders an English cricket fan a little despondent that Australians now regard the rivalry with India as more relevant to our times than the one for the Ashes. Even in this era of their greatest dominance of world cricket, Australia have failed to secure a series in India in what has been a 35-year barren streak. Indeed, earlier this year, they nearly lost to the Indians Down Under. At stumps yesterday, though, on the fourth day of the First Test in their latest campaign to make amends, they were well placed to take a lead in the four-match encounter.

Confronted with the challenge of batting four-and-a-half sessions to save the game, India, far from demonstrating resilience, spinelessly slid to 105 for 6.

Even a half-full Chinnaswamy Stadium created a cauldron-like atmosphere as Rahul Dravid tried to rectify the distortion of never having passed 27 in Tests on his home ground. As the unblemished blue sky of the morning turned to shadows towards the close of play (with a forecast of possible showers today), only this contemporary run-machine, with a characteristically defiant 47 off 144 balls, studded with square cuts and drives through midwicket, stood amidst the ruins.

Adam Gilchrist, deputising as captain for an injured Ricky Ponting, had won a useful toss to deny the Indian spinners, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, last use of a predictable turner. A brilliant 151 on debut by the 23-year-old Michael Clarke, cheered by his parents and grandparents in the stands, and a typically swashbuckling 104 by Gilchrist catapulted Australia to 474 in the first innings from an uncomfortable 149 for 4.

The ball spun from the very first morning - and has done more so ever since - but only occasionally with any pace or bounce. In contrast, the assistance to quicker bowlers has been negligible. Yet the Australian pacemen, spearheaded by the irrepressible Glenn McGrath, stressed the importance of length, line and variation to share eight wickets between them and restrict India to 246.

Gilchrist did not enforce the follow-on to avoid batting last - visions of India's incredible comeback at Calcutta in 2001 were perhaps still fresh in memory.

Harbhajan, featuring in his first Test of the year after surgery on his spinning finger, reinforced this by adding five more scalps yesterday to finish with 6 for 78 in the second innings and match figures of 11 for 224. It was his third 10-wicket tally in a row in home Tests against Australia, including six successive five-wicket hauls in an innings. Resuming on 127 for 4, the visitors were contained to 228.

A section of the Aussie media have hyped the present clash as "Turbanator II", after Harbhajan, a Sikh in a mini-turban, had terminated the ambitions of conquest held by Steve Waugh's squad in 2001 with a return of 32 wickets in three Tests. But while this talented off-spinner, with an esoteric exhibition of flight and deception, may have regained a psychological advantage over the Aussies, India are groping for a solution to their rather consistent batting collapses since scaling commanding heights in Australia last winter and in Pakistan in the spring.

However, if the Australians are wary of Harbhajan, Indians are so far relatively untroubled by Shane Warne, who is two short of passing Muttiah Muralitharan's career aggregate of 533 wickets. He bowled a ripping leg-break, though, to dismiss V V S Laxman in the first innings and crowned this by trapping this skilful right-hander lbw with his first ball - a straighter, flatter delivery - in the second. Moreover, he was distinctly unfortunate in not removing Dravid caught behind when he was 14. But he has some distance to go yet to overturn the heavy toll that Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sourav Ganguly have taken in the past.

Notably, it was McGrath who was once more the pick of the Australian bowlers, and at one stage after tea he boasted the analysis of 9-7-2-2. It was serendipity that fetched him his first victim - Virender Sehwag adjudged leg-before off a thickish inside edge - but there was no largesse involved in his second success in the match over Yuvraj Singh, who replicated chasing a ball outside the off-stump. The worst culprit was Ganguly, the home captain, who inexplicably set off for a run after clipping the ball straight to mid-on.

Sehwag was later summoned before an International Cricket Council disciplinary panel for questioning the umpire's decision. For a Level Two offence, he may be banned for one Test.

India are looking for an early return by Tendulkar, who has been laid low by tennis elbow. Though his side are now less dependent on his batting, his absence appears to affect them cerebrally. His return may be necessary for India to capitalise on the hot and sultry conditions that await Australia in the remaining Tests.