A day of satisfaction and regret
It was a day both teams will look back on with satisfaction as well as regret. Having won the toss on a pitch full of runs, India might feel they didn't capitalise on the starts and lost a wicket too many to ill-chosen shots. Both teams scored over 500 in the first innings when they last played here, and England scored more than 550 here last year, and still lost. Anything under 450 would be a below-par score here, and India could have done without losing VVS Laxman's wicket in the last hour. That said, though, they recovered well after a mid-innings totter had threatened to derail the innings.
Australia's bowlers can be happy they didn't let the batsmen run away with the match, and with India's batting ending with Mahendra Singh Dhoni, there remains the prospect of a swift strike with the new ball tomorrow. Yet Australia will rue those dropped catches, which would have got them into the tail in the last hour, and perhaps the absence of a fourth bowler who could keep it tight.
Of course, the day belonged to Sachin Tendulkar. He spent the whole of last year smelling centuries but unable to taste them. Cricketers are a superstitious lot, and he would think his luck has turned this year. Today he galloped to his 39th hundred with a six and four. He admitted to being twitchy while approaching the hundred in Sydney, so what better way to banish the nervous nineties.
As in Sydney, though, this was a masterfully constructed innings. It was not until the 19th ball that he got off the mark but, when he did, he was away. He spoke of that stroke after the day's play - a glorious straight drive off Brett Lee that was executed with minimum fuss - and that was the moment he knew it would be his day.
Three fours came from successive balls in the next over from Mitchell Johnson - one streaky, two gorgeous drives through the off side - but Tendulkar didn't gallop away. He concentrated hard against Lee and Stuart Clark, who bowled tight, and after a few cheeky shots against Brad Hogg, Tendulkar got around to building the innings in the company of Laxman. He has looked sublime from his first Test innings in the series, but each of his innings has had a different tempo and texture. In Melbourne he seemed determined to dominate, in Sydney it was about consolidating, in Perth, he had worked out he would cut hard at anything short; here as the Indian innings lurched on the edge, he played an innings of calculated brilliance, a perfect blend of defence and attack.
But it wasn't a lone hand. Virender Sehwag's selection was a gamble that could have gone to waste if he hadn't been played at all. After a nervy start in Perth, where he went hard at every ball, he has settled down to provide India the starts they were missing in the first two Tests. His innings ended with an impatient stroke, which was an irony because until then it had been one of maturity and restraint. His first 33 came off 41 balls with five fours, but following that he was made to work hard by Clark and Johnson and he was willing knuckle down. He has got better with every innings and clearly is a man who belongs in Test cricket; if his selection had been dependent on his performance, he would perhaps have never made it.
Laxman wouldn't like to see a replay of his dismissal today - for a batsman of his calibre he gets out taking his eyes off a bouncer far too many times - but till then he had batted as if he was carrying on from his previous innings in Perth. Languid and unhurried, he provided the assurance Tendulkar needed to go about his game.
Once again, Lee was exceptional. His first spell didn't yield a wicket, but he returned after lunch to remove Sehwag by probing away around his off stump. Denied width and length, Sehwag could no longer resist a waft at one that was thrown just a fraction wide. But Lee's best came in the last session when he got the old ball to reverse-swing either way, a skill last displayed by Andrew Flintoff during the 2005 Ashes. Adam Glichrist denied him Laxman's wicket once, but Lee bowled a snorter to ensure it didn't cost Australia more than 13 runs.
|Once again, Lee was exceptional. His first spell didn't yield a wicket, but he returned after lunch to remove Sehwag by probing away around his off stump. But Lee's best came in the last session when he got the old ball to reverse-swing either way, a skill last displayed by Andrew Flintoff during the 2005 Ashes|
And in Johnson, Lee had an enthusiastic partner. It's easy to see why Ricky Ponting likes to have Johnson in the team. Apart from his left-hand variation, he is willing to be the workhorse without ever losing pace and intensity. And he has got better with each Test. In Melbourne and Sydney, he bowled too wide outside the off stump to be threatening. But a strong spell in the first innings in Perth kept the Indian total under manageable proportions and today he bowled better than he has ever done in the series by adding a ball that was missing so far: the inswinger to the right-hand batsmen.
A left-arm fast bowler stops being predictable the moment he starts producing the ball that swings back in to the right-hander and Johnson was unlucky with two lbw appeals against Rahul Dravid and Sehwag. Asad Rauf, who has got plenty of lbws wrong in the series, compensated Australia somewhat by gifting them Sourav Ganguly's wicket - but it is the indecision induced by those balls that earned Johnson Dravid's wicket via an edge to second slip.
On these two men lies Australia's hope for an early end to the Indian innings. But they will need more catching support from the men behind. Gilchrist's drop was his fourth of the series, and even Matthew Hayden failed to pouch a routine one at first slip. This is not the first time India have out-caught Australia; they did so on their last tour, too, when they drew the series.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo