EVEN before Virender Sehwag's edge from the bowling of James Pattinson reached wicketkeeper Brad Haddin at the SCG yesterday, Australian captain and first-slip fieldsman Michael Clarke gave a pre-emptive clap.
That clap, like Christos Tsiolkas' slap, was pregnant with meaning. It was a commentary on Pattinson's again peerless bowling, on the bounce and movement in the SCG pitch - so unrecognisable from Shane Warne's heyday - and perhaps also on the malaise that afflicts modern Test batsmanship in all but ideal conditions. It means that a wicket is always coming.
Thirteen fell this day, making 30 in the last three days of this series. For the sixth time in nine matches since Craig McDermott became its bowling coach, Australia dismissed an opponent for less than 200. Replying, Australia soon was 3/37, the 16th time since the start of last summer that it has been three for less than 100. Only in the last hour, as Clarke and Ricky Ponting began expert and nerveless repairs, did a Test-like tempo prevail.
It made this a day of many claps: at the fall of each wicket; when boundaries were scored, because each seemed worth celebrating doubly; rhythmically when Ben Hilfenhaus and Zaheer Khan were on hat-tricks; and sympathetically when both missed out.
It got to the point where applause bubbled up for Australian opener Ed Cowan's meat-of-the-bat block, the way the survival of tailenders sometimes is cherished on a ball-by-ball basis. Stout defence was by then so antithetical. Then Clarke belted Umesh Yadav for three successive fours, prompting a more regular crescendo.
The Australian seamers again meshed like a machine. Really, it was all rigorously executed variations on one trusty and age-old theme: outswinger and off-cutter. Pattinson and Peter Siddle got the early reward, but Hilfenhaus bowled the single best ball of the morning, seemingly passing through Sachin Tendulkar and his stumps, and Hilfenhaus' later flurry was only his due. Batsmen on both sides were transfixed. All bar one of the wickets to fall on the day were to prods, pushes or other hesitations.
There were exceptions to this chaotic rule. One was Tendulkar, to whom no circumstance is new and who again batted sublimely before dragging a ball from Pattinson into his stumps. The 100th century remains stubbornly unscored.
Tendulkar was crossed on the ground by two giant drink bottles, cluttering the scene and diffusing the empathetic ovation rising in the crowd's throat, as Cricket Australia again demonstrated its total insensitivity to the simple majesty of Test cricket. One sharp clap would have stopped this defacing, but no CA person had the wit to issue it. Doubtlessly, its explanation was that all out there were having a great time. This justifies everything now.
India's other counterpoint was captain M. S. Dhoni, who sauntered into his team's crisis and retorted with 57 not out, in its pugnacious style not so much a captain's innings as a wicketkeeper's. But India was out for 191.
Then goose became gander. In Australia's innings, left-armer Zaheer Khan did the outswinger/off-cutter trick, but in mirror image.
Dave Warner lasted one over, Shaun Marsh one ball, and has now played one scoring shot in the series. Cowan appeared startled to be ruled lbw, but would have been out even if he had leave to refer to the higher court of Channel Nine gimmickry. Australia was listing badly.
But at last the ball stopped moving, and so did the madness. Ponting and Clarke, when at length able to lay bat on ball, did so boldly, and put on 79, with power to add to today.