At the end of the first day in Melbourne, MS Dhoni would have heaved a sigh of relief. Not only did India manage to keep Australia to a score of 277/6 - which at one stage was a more threatening 205/3, the man who turned things around - Zaheer Khan - came through unscathed after his first day on the field in five months.
It is not without reason that the team’s skipper and fans would have watched Zaheer with more than a little trepidation as he opened the bowling on Monday. The last time the fast bowler took the new ball, it was at Lord’s in England in July, when he left mid-way into the opening day with a hamstring tear that eventually ruled him out of the entire series. A series India then went on to be drubbed 4-0 in, in the absence of their front-line bowler.
There has been much talk about Zaheer Khan’s fitness since then, with an ankle injury keeping him out of all subsequent India matches until this Boxing Day Test. The intense scrutiny is not surprising. After all, Zaheer’s importance to the Indian bowling line-up cannot be understated. More so when he is leading a pace attack on a tour Down Under that comprises a 41-Test old Ishant Sharma, himself just returning from an ankle injury, and a two-Test old Umesh Yadav, on his first overseas tour for the country.
Unfortunately for India, the 33-year-old also has a history of not being able to complete crucial away series due to injuries. It wasn’t just England this year; Zaheer also limped off during the first Test of India’s 2004 tour of Pakistan in Multan, and last year he missed the Sri Lanka tour and the opening Test in South Africa. In fact, on two previous tours of Australia, Zaheer has broken down twice after supreme spells in the first Tests.
So the doubts lingered even as the Australia tour began. Would Zaheer be fit for the first Test? Would he break down again? Can he last the entire tour?
The first of those two questions have been answered, at least for now. For not only did Zaheer last the entire first day, he also ended it with two wickets. It might even have been a hat-trick, but Brad Haddin ensured the comeback was not quite that spectacular.
The start was more circumspect. Perhaps Zaheer was still feeling his way back, but his first two spells were probing without troubling the batsmen consistently enough. However, with the ball old enough after tea, the crafty bowler - one of the best exponents of reverse swing in the world - found his line and rhythm in devastating fashion.
The in-form Michael Clarke was his first victim, playing onto the stumps after trying to cut a delivery that came back in. The next ball from Zaheer was even better, a brutal bouncer to Michael Hussey that had the new man leaping at his crease to avoid any contact. Although later replays showed he did, in fact, avoid the edge, the rub of green was with Zaheer, and the back-to-back wickets stemmed Australia at a time when they were looking set for a big first-innings total.
Zaheer underlined his importance for India yet again, but there was more promising news on the bowling front in the form of Umesh Yadav. Playing his debut match in Australia, the 24-year-old showed he could combine quick speed with a healthy knack of picking up wickets as well. Of course he went for a few runs and had an inconsistent spell in between, but he also provided the crucial early breakthroughs, using the bouncer to dismiss David Warner before picking up Shaun Marsh with a good, full length delivery.
He reserved his best for Ricky Ponting though, welcoming the under-fire batsman with a short ball that hit the jaw, before unsettling him with a yorker at the end of the same over. Ponting then fought back with a half-century, but Yadav repeatedly tested him with his bounce, pace and length, finally getting the former skipper when he edged one to VVS Laxman at second slip post-lunch.
So, with the upcoming Indian bowling star picking up three wickets and the seasoned pro ending the day with figures of 23-5-49-2 and no seeming injury concerns, it is no wonder the India camp was a content_cned one. Of course, it is only the start of a long, hard series and the bowling will undoubtedly face sterner tests ahead, but given the worries over their bowling that preceded this match and India’s general propensity to begin overseas tours on a terrible note, the omens after Monday are looking good.