Australia v India, 2nd Test, Sydney, 4th day January 5, 2008

Australia overcome spin challenge

Siddhartha Vaidhyanathan on Australia's defiance of India's spinners on a turning pitch

Anil Kumble dismissed Matthew Hayden and Michael Clarke off successive balls, but Australia, led by both Hayden and Michael Hussey, ensured that they ended the day with their noses ahead © Getty Images
On a gradually wearing pitch, with showers occasionally sprinkling the field, the Test match turned into a tug-of-war. India's spinners tugged first and threatened a dangerous pull at the end of the day but two workmanlike Australians held firm. The momentum shifted, ever so slightly, in Australia's favour.

It wasn't a day for attack following counter-attack; neither was it one for gradual run-accumulation. A bunsen-burner of a pitch saw batsmen prodding, edging and surviving. Suddenly a ball would explode from the surface. A bit more fizz and the spinners might have won the day. Instead, through a marathon 57 overs, they were countered deftly in a show of batting that included innovation, gumption and plenty of patience.

Anil Kumble could have done with a bit more bounce, Harbhajan Singh with a bit more turn. Both were unlucky with marginal calls. On another day one could have ended with a hat-trick and another with a five-for. It was a game of such fractions. Inside-out fields popped up, reverse-sweeps appeared and a drizzle kept interrupting the slow burn.

It must have been a harrowing night for Harbhajan, seeing his batting exploits eclipsed by one controversial moment. Take out the 116th over of the Indian innings and he has had a good Test so far - extracting some bounce and turn in the first innings, sharing a "dream" partnership, and teasing in the second innings. He waited just an extra moment before bowling his first ball to Ricky Ponting, practised a couple of more twirls and lured a false stroke.

The celebration indicated how desperately he wanted the wicket. Reacting like a footballer who had scored a championship winning goal, he sprinted maniacally towards the dressing room before rolling over twice. There was an unbridled joy in the celebration, ecstatic that he had nailed a familiar foe and relieved over the events that had gone before.

"He is a competitor, he has a lot of quality in him," Sourav Ganguly said of Harbhajan's mental strength at the end of the day. "Quality players will always produce their best under pressure."

Both spinners had their moments against the left-handers but couldn't find a way to break through. Michael Hussey's exaggeratedly late strokes meant a few edges didn't carry to the slips and Matthew Hayden's lengthy front-foot stretches negated the turn. They varied their angles, changed the pace and switched fields. They appealed till their throats turned hoarse. Hussey ended the day on 87 - a bogey-number in Australia since it's 13 away from 100 - but had dollops of luck along the way, reprieved of close calls on 22 and 45.

Kumble, the bowler who missed out on an lbw appeal when Hussey was on 22, was later rewarded for not flagging in intensity. Starting after the third rain interruption, he forced Hayden into an ambitious reverse-sweep and outwitted Michael Clarke with a splendid topspinner. So unstuck was Clarke that he stood his ground, waiting for the umpire's decision, despite having edged to first slip. The scoreboard will say it was caught out but those watching know it's a case of embarrassed out.

A hat-trick was on the cards. Andrew Symonds walked in to raucous cheers. Kumble brought in an extra fielder close in, wrinkled his brows, pursed his lips and took off bouncily. A faster one was the most obvious missile to expect but so sharp was the pace that a new batsman would always struggle to get bat on ball. The rest was a shriek.

Kumble went up as if preparing for a back-flip, Rahul Dravid exploded into a double-appeal and the rest began the war dance. At first sight, Symonds was dead in the water but replays suggested it might have been marginally high. Steve Bucknor shook his head and the players took a while to recover from the appeal. It summed up India's day: agonisingly close but falling just short.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo