A frustrating end
Ugly might be an understatement to describe events on the final day in the SCG. A potentially cracking Test match was botched, an open series was all but shut and the beautiful scenes that the game produced were forgotten. This was a record-equalling Test containing contrasting centuries on all five days. But it ended bitterly.
These are the sort of losses that can hurt. Tension enveloped the ground during the final stages as Australia packed close-in fielders around the bat. Anil Kumble, who produced one of his finest innings, battled gutsily and Australia's part-time spinners fizzed it off the rough. Spectators prayed before every ball and cheered lustily after each. This was a cracking match played on a fine pitch. But it was tarnished.
Rahul Dravid, out of sorts recently, appeared to be finding his groove. His 61-run partnership with Sourav Ganguly seemed to have eased the nerves, his positive attitude was just returning, the cover drives were being struck crunchily, a corner was being turned, and a game was being saved. And he was robbed.
Ganguly flowed gracefully, counterattacking with gusto. So gorgeous were the three consecutive fours he struck off Andrew Symonds that the frames could be pasted on a picture postcard and sent back to Kolkata. He didn't hold back against the faster men, trying to show that draws and style can go together. Until he was done in.
These are the sort of abrupt endings that ruin a day's cricket - competent batsmen suffering incompetent umpiring. When it happens in the second match of a series, with the scoreline reading 1-0, it is worse. When it happens against two of your best batsmen, it's frustrating. And when the wickets change the complexion of the match, it is disturbing.
Neither team seemed to agree on the legality of catches, despite an unwritten pact agreed upon before the series. Ricky Ponting couldn't understand what all the fuss was about - he even scowled when someone questioned him claiming a catch after appearing to touch the ball to the ground. Anil Kumble didn't need to say much more than one line - "Only one team is playing in the spirit of the game", a statement bringing back memories of Bill Woodfull in the infamous Bodyline series.
Amid this nobody should forget the hard facts. India failed to survive 72 overs in the second innings, a couple of batsmen played injudicious strokes and a few others felt the heat. Wasim Jaffer's expansive drive just before lunch was reckless and Yuvraj Singh's fourth successive failure was a reflection of the team's flawed batting line-up. Has Jaffer been given a long enough rope? Does Yuvraj deserve a spot? These are hard questions that mustn't be buried under the controversies. "It's a bit of a concern," said Kumble, "and we'll address them in the practice game in Canberra. Those who haven't got a chance will get a knock."
Australia's tactics were simple: declare only after you ensure against defeat. They wanted India to go in with an intention to draw and choke them. No dangling carrots, no tempting targets. Bat them out and try to close the game. India would have known that, yet the runs were being leaked generously. Wasn't this the best chance to dry up the runs and delay the declaration? Were they too lax in conceding 119 in 24 overs on a fifth-day pitch? Often they appeared to be waiting for the declaration, when, in fact, there was still a chance to win.
Teams have their own ways to battle for a draw. Some attack as if it was the first day of the match, other sit on their haunches and prod. India needed to only look back to July last year to see they had got through more than 90 overs in the final innings at Lord's. Mahendra Singh Dhoni was at the centre of that draw and should have known better than to shoulder arms to one that came in, on a pitch where the ball wasn't rising much.
India will also remember that they saved that game thanks to rain and a small matter of an umpiring decision. England had reason to complain that day but had they lost, a fuse might have well blown out. Umpiring decisions matter, context even more so. It was heartening to see Kumble maintain his composure at the end of the day to say "it's a game after all". It was a reminder of what a fine Test match it could have been.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo