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Monday, October 20, 2008

Mishra's five helps India dominate

Amit Mishra had to wait six years for his second call-up to the Test squad but the timing was nothing short of perfect and his performance the definition of heart. Handed a Test debut after Anil Kumble was ruled out by injury, Mishra, the 25-year-old legspinner from Haryana, picked up five wickets and spun Australia out for 268 to give India a 201-run lead. Shane Watson batted superbly for a career-best 78, the highest score in a disappointing Australian innings, but couldn't take his team past the follow-on mark. India chose not to enforce it, however, and their openers rattled off 100 in 23 overs, extending the lead to 301.

If India go on to win this Test their think-tank should pat itself on the back because the decision to play Mishra, plucked out of relative obscurity, paid off spectacularly. India bowled with determination and resolve through the day but Mishra was the pick of the lot. Short and stocky with an easy action, he bowled the ball slow and that earned him the massive wickets of Simon Katich and Michael Clarke yesterday. The remaining three came either side of a 73-run partnership for the eighth wicket between Watson and Brett Lee, and proved crucial in strengthening India's position.

India gained the early advantage by removing Michael Hussey in the first session, but Watson and Brad Haddin looked to be settling in when the persevering Harbhajan Singh struck. He bowled Haddin with an offbreak that went through the bat-pad gap before Mishra doubled India's joy by sneaking a googly through Cameron White. India were made to toil for over two hours during the one period Australia can claim to have dominated. Watson played a positive innings and remained in control throughout, timing the ball superbly through the off side. He leant into his drives and caressed the ball- six of his fours came on the off side.

Watson batted with composure despite the ball turning enough to beat the bat or strike the pad. He walked in after lunch on 39 with the responsibility of lifting Australia from 174 for 7, and was fortunate to be given not out by Rudi Koerzten, when the first ball of Ishant's post-lunch spell swung in and struck him plumb in front. With a couple to long-leg in the same over, Watson equaled his highest Test score of 41, and bettered it with a pull for six when Mishra dropped short. His fifty came with a cut behind point for four and the Australian dressing room voiced its appreciation.

Watson and Lee batted out the first hour after lunch, scoring 47 runs, and were nine minutes away from tea when Harbhajan was rewarded for tight bowling when Lee pushed hard and edged low to Rahul Dravid at slip.

Mishra was immediately called back into the attack, and he ended Watson's resistance on 78, trapping him on the back foot with a slider. Soon after, the flight did it for Peter Siddle, who failed to get his back foot down before Dhoni completed a smart stumping. Mishra's 5 for 71 was the best return for an Indian bowler on debut since Narendra Hirwani's 8 for 61 against West Indies in 1988. Fittingly, the camera panned to a beaming Hirwani, now a selector, in the pavilion. Plenty had been written about India's persistence with two spinners, and Mishra stepped up commendably. He didn't get a lot of turn, but got enough, and his fearlessness to toss the ball up was refreshing.

Expectedly, Mahendra Singh Dhoni did not enforce the follow-on. Australia needed wickets but Ricky Ponting spread the field and started with one slip. Gautam Gambhir survived a vociferous leg-before shout off the first ball from Lee and opened up with a pleasing square drive. Virender Sehwag batted aggressively and received support from Gambhir who played a couple of superb drives either side of the pitch. India's 50 was up in 12 overs and, soon after, Siddle pitched the ball up and Sehwag slammed him over extra-cover. Sehwag's fifty took 68 balls and he promised much more on day four.

The day began with Australia in difficulty at 102 for 4 and ended with them facing the prospect of chasing a gigantic target.

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