WHEN was the last time Australia took such a pasting as they did in the first Test against India? Their last Test loss was to South Africa by eight wickets last year but they were not outplayed to such an extent there. And further, that was the last Test of a three-match series of which the baggy green brigade had already won the first two. Add to this the fact that India has not won a Test in calendar 1997 and it is all the more puzzling.
Going on sheer form, Australia were expected to have the better of the exchanges. And if they did lose they were expected to be beaten by a small margin. Not 179 runs. The result has left a lot of forecasters, not least this writer, with plenty of egg on their faces.
I think it was more than anything the Tendulkar factor that took away the initiative from the Aussies. He, and Sidhu to a lesser extent, ensured that Australia's main weapon, Shane Warne, was neutralised. And once that was done, more than half the battle was won. The conditions were better known to the Indian spinners but a bowler of Warne's class cannot offer that as an excuse. No, Tendulkar started the business when he took Warne to pieces in Bombay; Sidhu continued the job and Tendulkar delivered the upper cut with his majestic hundred. Warne is physically not at his best; remember he kept away from New Zealand to preserve his strength for this series. The food has not been going down well with him either and the mauling he took must have been the last straw.
There was one point in the match when Australia had the upper hand but they failed to ram home the advantage. After Ian Healy and Gavin Robertson had given the team an unlikely first innings lead, Australia could have turned the situation into an advantageous one for themselves if they had managed to take two or three Indian wickets before the lead was wiped out. But Sidhu put paid to any such plans.
And after he made his exit, it was left to Tendulkar to handle the willow in a manner in which only a batsman of his calibre can. He showed every bowler that he was the master on this wicket and nothing they did was going to occasion him any discomfort. He chanced his arm a bit but when a batsman of his class does so, there are better than even chances that he will get away with it.
Despite the victory, an old Indian weakness showed: Australia were 137 for six and were allowed to recover to 328 all out. How many times in the past have India been in a similar position, only to fail to deliver the killer blow? Fortunately, after the Indian second innings was over, the initiative had been fully regained; Mohammed Azharuddin's confident declaration was evidence of this. The target was eminently gettable had not the Aussies been both mentally and physically drained by then.
Australia have been in the same lane before: last year they were beaten in the opening Ashes Test but came back strongly to win the next three. They were beaten inside three days in the Caribbean in 1995 but regrouped to win the next Test, a victory that eventually made the first team in 15 years to win a series over the West Indies, and that too a case of bearding the lion in his own den.
Mark Taylor's refusal to blame the umpiring for the team's defeat is a positive reaction. Taylor knows better than most that the battle is fought in the mind and if his men are to come back, they have to believe that they were beaten by a better team on the day. Cricket, especially at this level, is mostly a mental game and if they can avoid the rut of thinking they are a beaten lot, they can definitely make this a series to remember.