Clarke versus Ashwin at Chennai

First Test: The off-spinner returns to form with six wickets as Clarke scores an unbeaten century.

Return to form: Off-spinner R. Ashwin claimed 6/88 on the opening day of the first Test against Australia. (File …

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The homecoming was worth six wickets for Ravichandran Ashwin. In his backyard, the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium, the off-spinner marked a return to form by claiming six Australian wickets on a pitch already desiccated and helpful.

Ashwin resorted to his trusty off spinner – doing away with variations – and gained appreciable turn and bounce on an accommodating wicket. He
had Australia five down for 153 midway through the second session, but  India had to wait inordinately long to taste more success on the opening day of the first Test.
For then, it was time for skipper Michael Clarke (103*) to continue his phenomenal run of form. Clarke rode his luck to pile on yet another century, which he completed in the last over of the day, and partnered debutant Moises Henriques (68) for 151 for the sixth wicket. The alliance was crucial as it came when Ashwin’s quick strikes after lunch – and the subsequent dismissal of Mathew Wade – had the visitors on the verge of a collapse.

Just when it appeared the Clarke-Henriques alliance would take Australia to the end of play, Ashwin struck again, removing the stubborn debutant with a huge off-break in the last session. Ravindra Jadeja took another one in the dying stages when he bowled left-arm fast bowler Mitchell Starc, leaving the visitors seven down at close, but sitting happily on an excess of 300 runs.

A spinner-dominated attack allowed for 95 overs to be bowled on the first day. Harbhajan Singh, playing his 100th Test, was a disappointment as he bowled a wicket-less 19 overs for 71 runs. It was surprising that India chose to leave out left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha, deciding instead to grant Harbhajan his 100th Test cap.

Rapid start

The day belonged in equal parts to either side after a gleeful Clarke elected to bat in the morning. The first phase was undoubtedly shared.  Australia powered ahead through David Warner and Ed Cowan. Warner, batting with a tender thumb, made the most of the seam attack as Bhuvneshwar Kumar opened the bowling on debut.

Warner, the ‘pocket rocket’, was granted at least a couple of ‘lives’. He was dropped by Virender Sehwag at first slip off Ashwin when he had scored 18. A while later Ashwin beat him again with turn and bounce, only to have MS Dhoni fluff a tough stumping chance. The off-spinner’s first two were products of carelessness.

Quick wickets

Ed Cowan (29) stroked the ball freely and got a little too adventurous when spin was introduced as early as the sixth over. He stepped out and swung Harbhajan Singh back over his head for six. Another similar attempt against Ashwin cost him his wicket, this time a casual flick by Dhoni completing the stumping.

Ashwin struck again in his next over. The new man, Phil Hughes, gave himself room to, but chopped the ball back onto the stumps. Warner and Shane Watson (playing purely as a batsman) took the score to 126 by lunch, after which another cataclysmic session was in store for Australia.

Quick wickets

Watson’s 28-run stay came abruptly to an end immediately after resumption, a fast, skiddy delivery trapping him in front on the backfoot. Warner’s chancy ways were curtailed on 59 in Ashwin’s next over, another leg-before verdict brought about by a tendency to stay back to fuller deliveries. The dismissal of Mathew Wade (also ‘lbw’ to Ashwin, although not as straightforward a decision) brought out Henriques – one half of the partnership that imbued Australia’s total with some decency.

Henriques was the second debutant of the game. India had also chosen to hand a test cap to rookie Bhuveshwar Kumar. Kumar and Ishant Sharma, however, failed to trouble the batsmen and were required only to prepare the ball for the slower bowlers. Although Dhoni also brought them on for short spells, it was obvious that success on this pitch would be reserved for spinners.

Clarke dropped

Clarke meanwhile reached his half-century with a towering six off Ashwin and overtook Don bradman’s Test mark of 6996 runs, also going past 7000 runs during the course of his knock. The 31-year-old Aussie captain – then on 39 – inside-edged Ashwin straight to short-leg just before tea, but umpire Kumar Dharamsena thought otherwise and snubbed the appeal.

Runs came easy in the last session. Henriques completed a half-century on debut; Clarke appeared comfortable; and it appeared the two would see Australia to close. Ashwin however had other plans. He picked up his sixth wicket of the innings when he ended Henriques’ 132-ball stay with one that struck him right in front after an attempted sweep.

Mitchell Starc became the first wicket to fall that was not claimed by the Chennai off-spinner. The tall left-arm fast bowler was bowled by Jadeja in the dying moments, leaving one last accomplishment to be performed in the last over of the day: Clarke’s hundred. ‘Pup’ advanced down the track and lofted the second-last ball of the day to reach his  23rd hundred – and sixth against India – in Tests. At 316/7, one can’t really say if his work is over.