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Peter English at the SCG
January 5, 2008
Ricky Ponting will need to take a big risk if Australia are to equal the world record of 16 consecutive wins. The mark set by Steve Waugh does not bother Ponting, who refuses to be swayed by statistics, but winning matters a lot to him.
India's impressive first innings has shorn Ponting of time, which has been one of his greatest assets since the drawn match against South Africa in 2005-06. Now he has to dictate proceedings with a declaration that has many consequences.
A victory would retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, continue the streak and evaporate the confidence gained by the tourists over the first four days. If India overcome the total set by Ponting suddenly the series is level and the captain will have lost his fourth Test in 40 games. The disruptions caused by rain and bad light on Saturday, which cut 12 overs from the day, did not help Australia's momentum and a draw remains the most likely result even though play will start half an hour early on the final day.
Australia will begin with a lead of 213 that was secured by Matthew Hayden's 123 and Michael Hussey's 87 not out. Ponting's dilemma over how many runs to set India is an unusual one for him. For most of his rule there have been a couple of days to dismiss his opponents rather than the limited opportunities that will be available on day five. This time he has to weigh up his tunnel-vision for victory with the reality of miscalculating a total and suffering defeat. A target of 320 would probably be out of India's reach, but 270 over two-and-a-bit sessions might be enticing. It is a tricky call.
The next Test starts in Perth on January 16 and Australia will be confident of a quick success if the pitch delivers the same steep bounce that was a feature of Australia's Twenty20 victory over New Zealand last month. India's discomfort against the short ball will be on display and the series is likely to be decided there if the home side's fast bowlers perform. It could be a reason for Ponting to play it safe in Sydney.
During one of the handful of rain breaks a video of Waugh's unbeaten run from 1999-2001 was shown to entertain the remaining spectators. It could have stirred the Australians as they sheltered in the dressing room. They spoke about the record only once in the lead-up to the game - Ponting told them to ignore it and concentrate on this match - but it must be hard to avoid getting excited by the chance to equal a world mark.
The sense of history and the push for new limits was a feature of the partnership between Waugh and the coach John Buchanan. Buchanan was overseeing the team for the first 12 victories of this streak, but his replacement Tim Nielsen does not motivate the players with the same sort of carrots. When the declaration comes it will be Ponting's decision and it will show how much he is willing to gamble on victory.
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