Jamie Alter: India had a great chance to win away from home but they flattered to deceive.
This will hurt. Like Barbados in 1997, Jamaica in 2002, Bangalore in 2005, and Mumbai and Durban in 2006, this will really hurt. India had a great chance to win away from home, in the first match of a series, but they flattered to deceive.
Capitulations are always painful to watch, but even by Indian standards the scenes that unfolded on the fourth afternoon at the MCG were particularly disgraceful. For a legion of Indian fans who have endured the painful memories of 66 all out in Durban, 81 in Barbados and 100 in Mumbai, this will add to the hurt. Up against a spirited pace-bowling attack that refused to lie low, India's batting line-up offered a meek display of questionable shot selection and inadequate stomach to lose the opening Test by 122 runs. The repercussions for the rest of the series could be crushing.
To lose eight wickets for 68 runs – Sachin Tendulkar's dismissal on the stroke of stumps on day two included – was ridiculous, but to lose the first six wickets in 26.1 overs bordered on the appalling. Australia's final two wickets batted 22.3 overs. India were 69 for 5 after 23.3 overs. Therein lay the difference between a team fighting to seize every minute opportunity, and one who squandered the advantage.
If India's thinking on the field was ultra-defensive – and this will be addressed shortly - the approach with the bat was over-aggressive. Attempting to chase the highest fourth-innings total at the MCG in 58 years was never going to be easy, but India fell prey to their age-old nerves.
The footwork was virtually nonexistent, the choice of shots irrational. Virender Sehwag chased a short and wide ball to gully, Gautam Gambhir yet again nervously poked to slip, Rahul Dravid left a huge gap, VVS Laxman clipped to leg, Virat Kohli played over a straight delivery, and Sachin Tendulkar could not contain himself. At 81 for 6, the stench of inability was overwhelming.
It was a diabolical capitulation to match the best that Indian cricket teams have put up in the past. A team with the two highest run-scorers in the history of Test cricket, and two other batsmen with over 16,000 runs between themselves, combined to be bowled out for 169. For three gripping days the equations at the close of play hung in the balance, but on the fourth day, when it most mattered, India imploded.
India's batting was terrible, but the defensive thinking in the morning went a long way towards the final result. In fact, the tone of the day was set in the morning, after Zaheer Khan extracted Michael Hussey for 89 with pretty much the perfect delivery. With Australia nine down, effectively 249 for 9, Dhoni shockingly spread the field and called on the offspin of R Ashwin four overs after Zaheer's strike. There was just a short leg and slip in place. One slip. And men patrolling the boundary. Instead of turning continuing with pace from both ends and calling on Ishant Sharma, Dhoni turned to spin. If Dhoni's welcoming Brad Haddin in the first innings, at 211 for 6, with a long-on, deep midwicket and fine leg in place was baffling, this was criminal. This is not the thinking of a champion side.
Would Graeme Smith have done that, with Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel at his services? Would any captain have done that? It defied logic. That Ashwin let his team down by bowling too short added to the overall sense of frustration and defensive thinking.
Compare this to Michael Clarke's captaincy. When India were 238 for 6 in the first innings, he attacked. He called on pace, stuck in four catchers, and throttled. On day four, Dhoni went onto the back foot and Australia's last pair added 43 soul-sapping runs to take the total to 240. With both teams evenly matched, runs from the tail made all the difference. If Australia go on to win in Sydney, they will look back proudly at how much a difference 58 deliveries in the morning session made.
How will India pick themselves up before January 3? Will harsh calls be taken? Kohli's two cheap dismissals, both the result of a dodgy technique, will make a strong case for Rohit Sharma's inclusion at the SCG. But is that a solution? Gautam Gambhir, who since 2010 has averaged 32 with just one century in 18 Tests, is under the pump. India have bounced back before - Perth in 2008 was a fantastic comeback - but to do so from here, where they had control of the game several times, will test each member of the team.
This was India's fight straight overseas Test defeat, but more than the four losses in England this defeat rankles because India managed to hold on for the past three days. In Sydney, the collective might of India's batting will have to stand up. There is no other way out.