R Ashwin took 6 for 88 on day one of the first Test against Australia in Chennai on Feb 22. (BCCI)
Chennai: Michael Clarke resumed his love affair with India's bowling attack by scoring his 23rd Test century but India wrested control of the opening day of the series thanks to R Ashwin's six-wicket haul on Friday. Ashwin's fifth and sixth wickets were separated by a 151-run stand between Clarke (103*) and the debutant Moises Henriques (68) that threatened to give Australia the day's honours, but two wickets just before stumps allowed India to leave the field with a spring in their step.
Having opted to bat on a bone-dry Chennai surface, Clarke had looked on as Ashwin spun out the first five wickets, but found an able accomplice in Henriques. Clarke ensured he cashed in on a life on 39 to stay not out with his fourth century in the last three months, but a total of 316 for 7 meant India had pulled matters back.
Australia had lost two wickets in the space of eight runs when Clarke walked out, and the skipper was at the nonstriker's end when Ashwin removed Shane Watson (28) and David Warner (58) in successive overs after lunch. When Matthew Wade (12) became Ashwin's fifth wicket with the score at 153, matters looked grave for Australia but up stepped Henriques with a confident first innings in Test cricket, giving Clarke the confidence to be himself.
Clarke and Henriques put a premium on taking singles and were adept at knocking the ball into the gaps. Harbhajan Singh, in his 100th Test, was decidedly lackluster while Ravindra Jadeja's left-arm spin was also milked with ease. Clarke - who on 12 crossed 7,000 Test runs - and Henriques ran well and assuredly kept runs ticking over following a drop in scoring with the wickets of Watson, Warner and Wade after lunch.
Clarke, however, was afforded a huge slice of luck on 39 by umpire Kumar Dharmasena, who failed to spot an inside edge when the batsman thrust his pad at Ashwin. Clarke brought up his fifty with a lovely six over mid-on off Ashwin, and never looked back. As always, his footwork to spin was deft and this positivity gave Henriques the confidence to play his own game. Henriques was firm off front foot and back, and cut with precision. He slowed after crossing 40 with a pull for four off four - he played 29 balls for his next eight runs - but reached the fifty-mark with a quick single, much to his captain's pleasure.
A steady tempo was maintained to turn the heat back on India, and apart from Ashwin no bowler left a mark. Ishant Sharma, the spearhead of the attack, struggled to locate a length and was not helped by very defensive open fields from MS Dhoni. The debutant seamer Bhuvneshwar Kumar was given a brief spell with the new ball (4-1-15-0) and then called back for the 66th over. Thereafter he found a bit of reverse swing but never looked threatening, mostly because he bowled too wide of off stump. Harbhajan finished with figures of 19-1-71-0 and looks like being stuck on 100 Test matches. His poor outing made India's decision to drop their No. 1 Test bowler, Pragyan Ojha, a very puzzling one.
The run rate picked up in the final session as Clarke and Henriques played their shots, but a moment of overconfidence did for Henriques on 68. Just two balls into another Ashwin spell, the 90th over of the day, Henriques missed a sweep and was given lbw. Moments later, Jadeja spun one past Mitchell Starc to hit off stump, giving India some lift late in the day. Clarke reached three figures off the penultimate ball of the day with a thumped four down the ground, but will rue the lack of support from his batting partners.
Earlier, Australia were given a positive start from Ed Cowan and Warner. The pair put on 64 before Cowan, having just hit only his second six in 14 Tests, attempted a big shot off Ashwin and was stumped for 29. Soon after, Ashwin had his second when Phillip Hughes edged an attempted cut onto his stumps. Watson and Warner combined for a 54-run stand that took Australia to 126 for 2 at lunch, but Ashwin's swift strikes undid the hard work.
With the fourth ball of the afternoon session, Ashwin skidded a short ball into Watson's pads and won an lbw appeal. Ten deliveries later, Warner went back to a full delivery and was hit in front of middle and leg. Wade's jittery innings lasted 35 balls before Ashwin rapped his pads in front of the stumps to claim his sixth five-wicket haul in 13 Tests. Suddenly there were visions of an Australian capitulation to spin, but Clarke and Henriques revived the innings with an excellent partnership.