Bowlers set up a fitting finale
After three days of swinging fortunes, this gripping, exhilarating Test is now poised for a grand denouement and if you love Test cricket that's what you would wish for irrespective of who wins. A draw is the only result ruled out; India have history and the runs on their side; Australia must break one record to create another. They are perhaps the only side that can do it.
It was a day when the odds kept shifting. It started with India as favourites, by lunch the bookies were backing Australia and the day ended with India 4/11 favourites against 2/1 for Australia. That sort of sums up the day.
Australia will feel the match slipped away from them a bit in the final session, when RP Singh added 50 rollicking runs with VVS Laxman for the ninth wicket and Irfan Pathan swung two batsmen out, but it was a mixed day for both teams. India ended up getting 50 more than Australia would have wanted them to, but perhaps 50 fewer than they would have liked when the day began. Which of course makes for the sort of finale this Test deserves.
Throughout the day, commentators kept saying how good the pitch was for batting, yet seen in isolation, the bowlers had another good day. Eleven wickets fell on Friday; four in the first session (India had lost four wickets for 46 runs at one point), three in the second, and four in the last. The second session is where India started to take control as Ponting, mindful of the over-rate, was forced to turn to Michael Clarke and Andrew Symonds. Though Mahendra Singh Dhoni took an age to get going, the quiet period allowed India to consolidate.
VVS Laxman scored the most runs - it was perhaps his least sparkling innings against an opposition he continues to torment, but it was among his most matured and cultured, and RP Singh provided a nasty twist at the end. But it was an assured performance from Pathan that kept India going in a difficult period.
In many ways, Pathan has been India's most impressive player of the match. He has been called on to bat in the dying moments on consecutive days and then to take on fresh bowlers in the morning, and he did the job with the calmness of an accomplished batsman. With the new ball, he has removed the openers in both innings: not bad for a man who got his break because of an injury to a team-mate. Had Zaheer Khan been here, Pathan would probably not have played; now he looks as though he has always belonged.
It's been a remarkable comeback for a man who has already experienced the best and the worst in international cricket in four years. It was in Australia in 2003 that he first announced his arrival - coincidentally because of an injury to Zaheer - with two crunching, reverse-swinging yorkers that cleaned up Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist - but the fall began just as he was being anointed, somewhat misguidedly, as the heir to Wasim Akram. The pace dropped and the swing disappeared and from Indian cricket's poster-boy he came to be described as competition to Murali Kartik, India's slow left-arm orthodox spinner.
It has been a hard climb from there, and Pathan has done it gradually, by first bowling cutters in Twenty20, then restrictively in the 50-over game, and batting impressively to score his first hundred in his return Test, and now the zing seems to back in his Test bowling.
In the first innings, not only did he get rid of the openers, he bowled the longest spell bowled by a quick bowler so far in this match (ten overs) without dropping his pace, now in the healthy 130s, or losing his line. And his wickets today were due as much to swing as they were to the bounce he managed off an awkward length. The ball that got Phil Jaques was his second successive ripper: the first had been a swinging yorker that barely missed the edge and then the stump; a second, barely short of length, reared and moved just enough to catch the edge.
|It is up to the Australian batsmen, who haven't been allowed to dominate the way they like to by the Indian bowlers, to chase the improbable. Rule nothing out - this is a Test that has refused to be taken for granted|
Earlier, a sprightly bowling effort from Australia kept India to 242 runs for nine wickets on a third-day pitch, which was even more remarkable because only two of their bowlers ever looked capable of taking a wicket. Shaun Tait, who was trusted with only six overs on a day Symonds and Clarke bowled 23 between them, looked lost and listless and, though he got rid of Sourav Ganguly, Mitchell Johnson was criminally profligate, going for nearly six runs an over.
It was left to the magnificent Brett Lee and the impressive Stuart Clark to keep Australia in the game. Clark must be sick of being compared to Glenn McGrath and in fact he has added something to his bowling that McGrath never had: a touch of swing. As ever, he bowls pretty straight but occasionally, just when the batsman thinks he has the line covered, the ball snakes away, just a bit, to beat the bat. He bowled one of those to Dhoni today: it beat the outside by a fraction, and the off stump by the same distance. His second-best ball of the day got Australia the early breakthrough: Virender Sehwag, on whom rested India's hopes of taking the match away quickly, was cleaned up.
Lee's brief sparring with Sachin Tendulkar showcased how Test cricket can provide the stage for individual contests within a team game. Lee's first ball squared up as Tendulkar shaped to clip it to the leg side and ran past the third slip for four. The next couple of overs, Lee kept probing away, an inch out side the off stump, a foot wide next ball, then a bit closer, and then one tantalisingly wide, to which Tendulkar looked drawn for a fraction of a second. When the full ball arrived, three deliveries later, back it went, gloriously past the bowler. Round one to the batsman.
Lee, though, wasn't to be denied. Tendulkar tucked the first ball of the next over for a couple and Lee went wide and homed in outside the off stump; Tendulkar, almost by instinct, looked for the clip to midwicket but was nailed for pace, and there was no doubt where the ball was headed but for the pad. That's the way Lee looked to get him out in the Test, and that's the way he has got him both times.
Now, though, it is up to the Australian batsmen, who haven't been allowed to dominate the way they like to by the Indian bowlers, to chase the improbable. Rule nothing out - this is a Test that has refused to be taken for granted.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo