Hayden hundred propels Australia to 213-run lead
The last two days have been about razzle-dazzle batsmanship from high-quality practitioners of the art but the fourth day was more about absorbing, trench-warfare cricket as India's spinners repeatedly chipped away at Australia on a wearing pitch. Innings of substance from Matthew Hayden and Michael Hussey put Australia in a good position to set a platform for the final day, as they ended with a lead of 213, with six wickets intact.
The first session on the penultimate day was always going to be a crucial one and it was Australia who took first possession of the initiative, with Hayden and Phil Jaques blunting the Indian attack. It was Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble who were the real threats, teasing, flighting, turning and pushing through the ball on a pitch that was encouraging the spinners.
Hayden and Jaques held their ground, but the runs did not come at the usual gallop that we have come to expect from Australia. In fact, when Jaques, after a partnership of 85 tried to force the pace with a big slog sweep off Kumble, he only managed an easy catch to Yuvraj Singh in the deep. Jaques had made 42, out-scoring Hayden for a time, and ensured that Australia wiped out the deficit without losing a wicket.
When Ricky Ponting fell yet again to Harbhajan, off the very first ball the tormenting offspinner bowled to him, closing the face of the bat and edging straight to VVS Laxman at silly mid-off, the pressure was on the Australians. Harbhajan now has Ponting's wicket eight times in Tests, and the celebrations that followed the latest issue, with Harbhajan running across the field and doing a soccer-style double roll on the turf, endeared him to his boisterous Indian fans at the SCG as much as it would have got under the skin of the Australian cricketers.
Hussey joined Hayden out in the middle and the two used contrasting methods to handle the pressure the Indian spinners were applying. With plenty of rough created by the bowlers' footmarks, the ball was gripping the surface and occasionally bouncing more than expected. This meant that the close-in catchers were kept constantly interested, though, to the chagrin of the Indian captain, not one checked defensive shot or edge went to hand.
Hayden's progress was further hampered when a niggling injury to his right thigh forced him to call for a runner and Ponting came out to do the job. Hussey, in the meantime, played late, using soft hands and often opening the face of the bat to place the ball past a fielder, while Hayden took the less delicate approach. He made room to cut, and when that method failed, relied heavily on first the conventional sweep and then the reverse-sweep. He brought up his half-century with one such powerful swat, but it was a high-risk option at the best of times.
Hayden ground down the Indians, letting little pass by his broad bat, and brought up his 29th Test century with some ease, and coming as it did, on a fourth-day pitch, against two spinners bowling well, must rate highly among his efforts. But Hayden would die by his own sword, having put on 160 for the third wicket. He played the reverse-sweep to Kumble and this time there was a fielder at point, Wasim Jaffer, who held the ball head-high and cut short Hayden's innings on 123.
Off the very next ball Kumble struck again, and the man who is thought to be the heir to Ponting's captaincy did something he will perhaps look back on and regret. Michael Clarke, played back to a Kumble googly that he did not pick - no shame in that, better batsmen than him have committed the same error - and cut straight to Rahul Dravid at slip. The catch was comfortably taken at knee height, and inexplicably, almost mockingly, Clarke stood his ground, waiting for the umpire to give him out. When the finger went up Australia were once again momentarily under pressure, having lost two quick wickets against the run of play.
But the overall momentum was still with Australia, and when Andrew Symonds and Hussey ensured that there was no collapse, buckling down and applying themselves with admirable determination, India's bowlers were once again kept at bay. When Ishant Sharma was thrown the ball late in the day, with the light not being the greatest after intermittent drizzle had caused stoppages, the batsmen accepted the offer from the umpires and walked off with the score on 282 for 4. Hussey, unbeaten on 87, will have to take fresh guard in pursuit of his century.
This means Australia will bat again on the fifth morning, and be in a position to set India a target. What Ponting will have in mind is the fact that the series scoreline is 1-0, and an over-generous declaration in pursuit of a 16th straight win might be a dangerous strategy. Equally, with the spinners looking most threatening, Ponting will know Australia don't quite have the same firepower in that department as the Indians.
Anand Vasu is an associate editor at Cricinfo