Australia v India, 4th Test, Sydney, 3rd day January 4, 2004

A dream gone sour

Steve Waugh trudges back after being dismissed by Irfan Pathan

The ovation that greeted him when he walked out to bat was almost seismic in its nature, but Steve Waugh might have been reminded of the James Kelman novel, How Late it Was, How Late - if his reading habits extend to crude Scotsmen who litter the page with f-words - where the main character wakes up one morning to find himself blind, with little memory of what had gone before.

While Waugh's plight was nowhere near as desperate, there was no denying that his world had gone pear-shaped in the space of 48 hours. The fairytale ending that most of Australia had yearned for had instead become an unending journey on the road to perdition, with VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar pointing the doomed automobile to its fate. Victory, and a triumphant farewell, were now just pipedreams, the best-case scenario being the honourable draw, which Australia haven't considered honourable at all in recent seasons.

The scoreboard showed 229 for 3, with 277 more required merely to save the follow-on. In another day and age, when he played under Allan Border and Mark Taylor, Waugh would have been considered the perfect man for the occasion, the one to roll up his sleeves and start the survival crawl.

But those times are firmly ensconced in the past, and his decision to walk out in the baggy green cap was merely a token gesture to a captive audience. Given his discomfiture against the short ball, especially against the intermittently threatening Ajit Agarkar, it was a wise decision to call for the helmet after one ball - no sense in adding injury to mental duress.

He played two cracking strokes through the off side once he got his eye in, but his game these days is so laced with risk that there was scarcely a suggestion of him digging a trench and batting to eternity. The fact that Irfan Pathan and Parthiv Patel - neither of whom had been weaned when Waugh made his Test debut - combined for his dismissal was a poignant reminder that Old Man Time isn't indulgent when it comes to farewells.

Australia's hopes of saving this game - rain could be a factor over the next two days - rest with Simon Katich, who used his feet beautifully to the spinners in an innings that went on a long way to bridging the divide between potential and performance. When India were down and out at Kolkata three years ago, it needed a magical innings from a fringe player with an indifferent record - Laxman averaged just 27.06 prior to that game - and Australia need Katich to emulate that effort to have any chance of avoiding a first series defeat at home since 1992-93.

India's spirited bowling effort - Agarkar was the exception, as terrible here as he had been excellent at Adelaide - was once again built around Anil Kumble, who deserves every single word of praise that comes his way, and then some. Before this tour, most had ridiculed his overseas record, especially the five wickets at 90 apiece when India came here in 1999-2000. Kumble had quietly pointed out before this tour began that those unflattering figures had largely been the result of being employed as a stock bowler, with defensive fields and containment the sole priority.

On this tour, given the license to attack once the batsmen had put runs on the board, he's been a revelation. A month ago, some punters would have laughed themselves to death at the prospect of him taking five-wicket hauls in three consecutive Test matches but the joke's on them now. On the ground where Tiger Bill O'Reilly mesmerised batsmen for close on two decades, he needs just one more wicket to do that. And no one deserves it more than a man who has close to 400 Test wickets, but not the respect that usually accompanies such achievements.

While Kumble made the decisive breakthroughs, it was Irfan Pathan who broke hearts with a marvellous spell in the soft late afternoon sun. Subtle late movement away from the bat accounted for Waugh, while Adam Gilchrist was sent packing by one of the deliveries of the series, an absolute corker that bore more than a hint of Wasim Akram's influence. Once Zaheer Khan gets back to full fitness, and with Kumble appearing fresh enough to last another season or two, India might finally have the bowling resources to supplement a batting line-up that David Frith - the noted cricket historian and writer - reckons is as good as any to have criss-crossed this vast and wonderful country.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. He will be following the team throughout the course of this series.