Declaration shuts India out
Setting targets is one of the great games played by a team in command. Australia have done it a lot under Ricky Ponting and he still doesn't know when a chase is too small. At home he has not lost a Test and he has become less generous in the size of his declarations over the past couple of years.
The question floating around the MCG throughout the third day was when would Ponting consider he had enough? He finally called his men off with about 45 minutes remaining and it was a positive step towards the end of a day when Australia traded aggressive flair for grinding. A four-day victory would extend the turnaround between the Melbourne and Sydney Tests by 24 hours and when it comes to back-to-back Tests Australia are wary.
Breaks for the bowlers are almost mandatory, which is why Ponting is so reluctant to enforce the follow-on, and the team's research shows they are more likely to get injured when there is a short gap between matches. By declaring Ponting has challenged India to bat 98 overs to take the game to the final day while giving his fast men the incentive for a rest on Sunday before the serious training resumes in Sydney.
One huge benefit of the high speed of Australia's scoring is they have so much time to dismiss their opponents, which rules out the need for sporting declarations. When Ponting closes the innings the opposition has virtually no chance of success unless a miracle can be conjured. He has rarely needed to rush his decision and only once, against South Africa in 2005-06, did it result in a draw.
Australia earned a lead of 506 in Hobart last month before letting Sri Lanka bat for a second time and against England in 2006-07 Ponting set 648 in Brisbane and 557 in Perth. Each time the home team registered a convincing victory that demoralised their opponents, who had to wait and wait for the misery to end. Second-innings torture has become one of Ponting's most damaging tactics. The pain of a small total can be written off as a bad display, but hours spent toiling in the field when all influence has been lost are hard to erase.
The body language of the Indians was sluggish in the morning and as a warm day wore on there was not much they could do except wait for Ponting's wave. The declaration could easily have come long before tea, when Australia's advantage was 395, but the hosts remain concerned that one of India's famous four will stir. Instead Ponting went on until the shadows crept over quarter of the field and the lead was 498.
After registering 196 in the first innings, India will consider 350 a triumph. The highest fourth-innings total at Melbourne is 417, which could not prevent England from losing in 1977, and the batsmen's worries about the pitch continue. The bounce is variable and the fast bowlers from both teams have enjoyed reverse-swing created from the rough square. Although Australia missed a breakthrough in their short bowling stint there was only one team comfortable with the position of the match. It is just how Ponting wants it.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo