Australia v India, 3rd Test, Melbourne, 2nd day December 27, 2003

Out of jail

Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting turned the tables on India
© Getty Images

Steve Waugh's farewell season hasn't turned into a funeral yet. He owes a big thanks to Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting for taking Australia to a position from which, unless they are overcome by the self-destructive affliction that struck India for a couple of hours during their first innings, only one team can win. And perhaps a bigger thanks is owed to his opponents, who contrived to lose their last nine wickets for 88 runs, six of them for 37 on the second morning. It was a collapse reminiscent of England's at the Adelaide Oval last year, when they lost seven wickets for 47 after Michael Vaughan had brought them to a position of strength with a commanding 177.

Hayden and Ponting were majestic and ruthless, in the same manner that Australia have been over the last few years. On a pitch that was on its best behaviour today, handsome and calculated batting by Australia's two most prolific batsmen of the year put India's surrender of advantage in gruesome perspective. It is cruel to be harsh on a batting line-up that has scored more than 350 in three successive first innings, but as a lost opportunity, few would count bigger than this one. At 277 for one, India were well-poised to bat Australia out of the match, and indeed, of a series win.

Evidence from the last two Tests has made it abundantly clear that this series will be won or lost by batsmen, because neither team possess the artillery to blow or enchant out 20 wickets in a match. Many more wickets have been lost in this series than earned, and if you bother to count, 10 of the 13 wickets to fall so far in this match have fallen that way.

Cricket is cruel in a way that it can sometimes be unforgiving of singular lapses. India's calamitous collapse can be rooted to be one moment of misjudgment from Rahul Dravid on the first evening. He had batted with the serenity and felicity of a man with 300 runs behind him from one Test, till he was suckered into playing a stroke that has got him out a few times in one-day matches in the recent past. Waugh, bowling nine overs on the first day, wouldn't have been in Australia's script, but that one stroke, a jab to midwicket, made Waugh's toil rewarding, and wrenched the door open for Australia just when it seemed to be shutting on them. India had earned all their luck last morning through grit and courage, but luck abandoned them with this single lapse and Sachin Tendulkar found one of the most unfortunate modes of dismissal to get himself out.

The batting this morning represented a lack of collective intelligence: Sourav Ganguly rediscovered his old ways of mistaking batting in the middle to a catch-practice session, Ajit Agarkar seemed iron-willed about maintaining a clean scoresheet at the MCG - his suicidal run-out brought him his third duck in as many innings at this ground - and VVS Laxman of all people found a way to edge an almost-straight ball from Stuart MacGill.

India wilted in the field
© Getty Images

Because both Hayden and Ponting scored with such aplomb, run-making looked an easy job. They piled on stroke upon stroke, boundary upon boundary, and forced the bowlers to alter their length, and the captain his field. Hayden drove majestically down the ground and made a mockery of a sweep-trap laid for him by Anil Kumble, while Ponting's off-driving and punches behind square had the stamp of the brutal efficiency of a man with five centuries this year. The Indian fielding wilted under the combined assault of Ponting and Hayden and an embarrassing number of runs were conceded between the legs of dispirited fielders. Anil Kumble was the only bowler who occasionally looked like taking a wicket, and might have been unlucky with a couple of lbw appeals that went against him, but such was the intent of two batsmen in glorious form that every lapse in line or length from him was punished to the maximum.

This series has been full of surprises so far. But today was overwhelmingly Australia's day. India let them get out the jail, and now find themselves in it. Australia need to bat well for a couple of sessions to put an unbreakable lock on it.

Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.