Tendulkar ton lights up keen contest
It was less than two years ago that a small minority booed him off at the Wankhede Stadium in his home town. On Thursday at the Adelaide Oval, he replicated his feats as an 18-year-old, scoring his second century of the series as India endeavoured to take advantage of winning the toss. Sachin Tendulkar's 39th Test hundred was one of his finest, and it rescued India from the tight corner they found themselves in when Sourav Ganguly was given out midway through the afternoon.
Tendulkar's 126-run partnership with VVS Laxman wrested the initiative, but a superlative spell of old-ball bowling from Brett Lee righted the balance on a surface where even totals in excess of 550 haven't been enough to guarantee victory in the recent past. Having batted in fairly circumspect fashion immediately before and after tea, the batsmen went on the offensive against Brad Hogg, selected ahead of home-town hero, Shaun Tait, for this game.
Laxman started it with a elegant drive, and a six and a four either side of the sightscreen from Tendulkar in the same over forced Ricky Ponting to reassess his bowling options. Off went Hogg and on came Lee, with Michael Clarke pressed into service at the Cathedral End. Laxman greeted Lee with a delighful cut past gully for four, but he should have gone two balls later when a careless waft flew to Adam Gilchrist's right. He fumbled it, and Laxman, then on 37 and with the score at 240, would go on to add another 42 with Tendulkar.
By then, the master was in rampant mood. He had taken 77 balls for the half-century, but he needed just 56 more to reach a unique landmark. A powerful straight hit for six off Clarke got him to 98 and when he threaded a drive beyond mid-off's despairing dive, the crowd rose as one to acknowledge a fantastic effort. Soon after, he survived a half-shout when he tried to run a Hogg delivery down to fine leg and the ball might have gone off the face of the bat into Gilchrist's gloves. But so mild was the appeal from behind the stumps that Billy Bowden wasn't convinced.
Across the 22 yards, Laxman had been largely stifled by Lee's pace, but Hogg's left-arm spin was much more to his liking. Two swats through midwicket took him to 50 (95 balls), but Gilchrist redeemed himself for his earlier lapses soon after, holding on to a simple chance down the leg side after Laxman got himself into a terrible tangle against a Lee bouncer.
Unsure of whether to pull, he ended up taking his eyes off the ball, and it merely lobbed up off the glove to end what had been the defining partnership of the day. It was some reward for Lee, who steamed in at close to 150kph on a hot afternoon, reverse-swinging the ball at will to find a way back into the game for his team.
Tendulkar's innings had started in inauspicious circumstances after he walked out just before lunch following the dismissal of Dravid. It took him 18 balls to get off the mark but when he did, it was worth waiting for, a magnificent on-drive off Lee. That seemed to lift an invisible weight off his shoulders, and Mitchell Johnson was then taken for three fours through the off side in an over that saw India go past 100. Lee did strike him a painful blow in the ribs, but the real alarm came when an attempted cut off Hogg fell just short of Clarke at backward point.
It helped India that Tendulkar found his rhythm just as Virender Sehwag was losing his. With the bowlers maintaining tight lines and Ponting setting astute fields, his scoring was restricted, and the frustration finally got the better of him when he had a statuesque flirt at a Lee delivery that thundered down at 149.1kph. Too late on the shot, he could only find the edge through to Matthew Hayden, restored to first slip after missing the defeat in Perth.
Tendulkar's intent against Hogg was unmistakable, with cuts, sweeps and a huge shot that soared over midwicket for six. Stuart Clark came on to try and prise out another wicket, but it was to be Hogg that got lucky, as Asad Rauf upheld an appeal after Ganguly had been struck in line a long way forward. At 4 for 156, India were in danger of squandering the advantage.
Earlier, with a perfect blue sky overhead and a great batting surface underfoot, India had rattled off 51 in the opening hour, only to be reeled in before lunch. Dravid's wicket, on the ground where he inspired an Indian victory in 2003, was a big blow, but it also vacated the stage for Tendulkar to arrive to another standing ovation.
With Wasim Jaffer dropped so that Harbhajan Singh could be accommodated, the decision to open with Irfan Pathan was only a moderate success. He clipped the first ball he faced from Johnson for four through midwicket, but then played and missed a few times before sparring at one that just left him a touch. By then, India had 34 on the board, with Sehwag making a typically brisk start.
There were a couple of fortuitous edges through the slip cordon and an inside edge off Johnson that flew past off stump, but those were counterbalanced by two contemptuous flays through the covers when Lee erred in length. Clark came on in the tenth over, and Australia managed 14 before drinks, just a reminder that teams can do it when faced with the threat of fines or suspensions. He and Johnson stemmed the tide somewhat, and the Indians made up for the lack of boundaries with some aggressive and purposeful running between the wickets.
Dravid survived an excellent leg-before shout from Johnson when he was on 3, and the Indian masterplan was being implemented beautifully until a Johnson delivery that slanted across Dravid took the edge through to Ricky Ponting at second slip. Sehwag reached his half-century from just 68 balls, but it was Australia that inched ahead in the afternoon until Tendulkar flipped through his back pages and came up with the sort of innings that had 1992 or '98 stamped on it.
Hayden dropped Dhoni off Johnson just before stumps to complete a pretty ordinary day in the field for the world's best side. Lee and Johnson had been outstanding at times, but others needed to step up if they were to deny Tendulkar a triumphant Australian swansong.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo