It’s dust in the wind as Clarke passes the Don

CHENNAI: If Michael Clarke’s heart skipped a beat at the toss of the coin in the middle of M.A. Chidambaram Stadium, he could be excused. Batting third on this south Indian dustbowl, against a coterie of hungry spinners, will be difficult enough. Chasing even 100 to win in the final innings would have been about as easy as a foreigner driving a hire car in Chenani peak hour.

Thankfully for Australia’s captain, it went his way, a win revealed once the specially minted Board of Control for Cricket in India coin was excavated from the red soil. As the pitch began to break out inside the first hour of the first Test on Friday, it was drummed home as no small victory.

A team of barefoot ground staff, armed with straw brooms, swept the barren deck for much of the session breaks, emitting a large puff of orange dust with each pointless swipe.

Australia should barely have been surprised; they have been here for two weeks and the only sign of life were the odd grass clippings sprinkled on the deck like coriander leaves on a stir fry.

Australia’s radical decision to include only the one specialist spinner, Nathan Lyon, in their XI was met with bemusement in some sections here, and the finished product of the BCCI pitches and grounds committee demonstrated why. India chose three – Harbajan Singh, in his 100th Test, Ravichandran Ashwin and the all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy opener.

The results were immediate: they were on by the sixth over of the day and by five minutes after lunch Ashwin had four wickets as Australia, after an enterprising start, lost 2-5 to fall to 4-131.

The tall right-arm orthodox claimed the prized wickets of Shane Watson (28) and David Warner (59), both leg-before, with his first seven balls after the break. Watson was left stranded by a dud bounce, while Warner was beaten by a darting off-break. If they had any complaints about the decisions, it was no good – India’s lack of trust in ball-tracking technology means there is no decision review system here.

Given the television pictures they could have seen in their hotel rooms of the Hyderabad bombings on the eve of the match, the Australians could be forgiven for being a tad shaky on day one regardless of the treacherous conditions laid out for them. They did not appear the slightest bit on edge in the first session of the series, however, racing to three figures before lunch led by Warner’s half-century.

Australia’s head coach, Mickey Arthur, had instructed his batsmen to take on India’s spin-oriented attack in the way that Kevin Pietersen did so effectively for England late last year.

They did exactly that from the beginning, with Ed Cowan channelling his partner Warner with an aggressive 29 that featured four boundaries and a six and ended in most uncharacteristic fashion: stumped, trying to skip down the wicket to Ashwin. His replacement, Phillip Hughes, never looked comfortable in his brief stay before chopping Ashwin onto his stumps trying to cut the off-spinner to the rope for six.

Warner and Watson, swapping helmets for baggy green caps, did not back off, though, and during their 54-run partnership Australia’s innings began to look settled once again.

Ashwin undid them both in quick time and Australia’s hopes were for the latest instance left largely with Clarke.

Like most Clarke innings of late, there were records, too.

An early single took his Test runs total past Sir Donald Bradman’s tally, and with a subsequent four from Ashwin he notched 7000 for the career.

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