It was 1938. The name was Bill O’Reilly. According to Don Bradman, ‘The Daddy of Them All.’
It was during that final Ashes series before the Second World War that O’Reilly had grabbed the new ball and run furiously up to deliver his medium paced leg-breaks.
Through 79 intervening years, no other Australian spinner had done that on the first morning of a Test match. With men like Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Alan Davidson, Garth McKenzie, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thompson, Craig McDermott, Glenn McGrath and others, it was rather unheard of in the post-War years till date.
That Australia has had to revert to an attack with Nathan Lyon gripping the cherry with his spinning fingers is a sign that these are rather desperate times. With the early success he achieved, one may be tempted to laud Steve Smith for a masterstroke, but the other way of looking at it is that he has gambled and not too successfully.
True, Lyon did end with 5 for 77, thus capturing his third five for in a row. However, the concern is elsewhere. Lyon, for all his merits, is not an O’Reilly. He is not remotely of that quality or that pace. He is not even a Ravi Ashwin. Seeing him with the ball does not really send the same shivers down the spines of batsmen, especially ones brought up on a steady diet of spin bowling.
Besides, the reason Lyon opened the bowling is that Australians opted for a three-spinner approach with just one quick bowler. An option that makes sense if the bowlers in the line-up are O’Reilly, Clarrie Grimmett and Bert Ironmonger; or perhaps Abdul Qadir, Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim; or Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra.
The Australian spin line up is not remotely as threatening. Take Lyon away and we are left with Ashton Agar and Steve O’Keefe. The former will probably end up playing as a specialist batsman someday, a statistical oddity of a top-order Test bat who started his career from No 11. He is not really a top-notch spinner. And O’Keefe has just about started his Test career, is largely untested, and was always expected to suffer from jet lag as he flew in to bowl on the Chittagong track.
This is hardly a bowling attack to strike fear into the heart of the opposition. On the other hand, Bangladesh batsmen have been historically suspect against the pace bowlers. They were uncertain against Pat Cummins on this morning as well. And not too long back, in fact in the previous Test, they had lost three quick wickets to this same fast bowler.
In retrospect, playing three spinners of this varying quality on a track which is less than a rank turner, and thereby leaving out a pace bowler, hints at a side struggling for ideas, reacting rather than planning, and succumbing to the vagaries of the conditions rather than playing to their own strengths. That Cummins came off the field for a while due to a heat-linked illness did not augur well for the side either. He was distinctly off-colour with the second new ball.
Perhaps all that analysis would have been different if the hosts had not recovered from the early blows. Lyon, relying on guile rather than turn, angled the ball in to the left-handers Tamim Iqbal, Soumya Sarkar, Imrul Kayes and Monimul Haque, trapping all of them leg before as they played for the spin. The first time that a Bangladesh top four had been dismissed by spin, also the first time that any top four has been trapped leg before by the same bowler.
But from 117 for 5 the Tigers did recover to a respectable 222 before Shabbir Rahman was dismissed by the next moment of Lyon success as Matthew Wade executed a sterling leg-side stumping. Before that Mushfiqur Rahim and Shabbir had steadied the ship with some spirited batting.
Mushfiqur is still there, essaying the perfect captain’s innings. But he was more of a foil to the aggressive Shabbir, who got his half century in 62 balls, exactly half the number required by the skipper.
It was actually Shabbir’s attacking innings that restored balance in the game. In the morning, perhaps knowing they were up in the series, the Bangladeshi approach had perhaps been a wee bit too cautious. Tamim took his time over his 9 runs. Soumya Sarkar and Monimul Haque did demonstrate some powers of concentration and consolidation but remained somewhat too reticent in their shells. The problem with such an approach is that often one gets a good ball after a lot of hard work that necessitates a return to the pavilion with little to show for the efforts. The currency in cricket is run, there is no other way of looking at it. Soumya and Monimul both departed with less than half their job done.
In contrast, the knock played by Shabbir seized the initiative right back. And as the day progressed, the lack of depth of the Aussie attack was quite palpably on display.
253 for 6 is not a big score. Neither is Bangladesh likely to be happy with it at the end of the first day. But, they have demonstrated resilience, and there are definite gaps in the Australian bowling attack. If they put their heads down and try to consolidate further, it will remain a difficult task for the visitors, especially given that here too they will bat last.