High noon drama
An ambulance waited outside the Bradman Stand just before tea. On a searingly hot Australia Day, a couple of spectators had succumbed to sun-stroke. It was in such scorching conditions that the teams played out the most engrossing phase of the match, a period when the mercury rose and scales tilted.
Ricky Ponting talks of the 600 contests that make up a day of Test cricket; here he was right in the middle as layer after layer unfolded. Australia's openers walked out to a rousing reception after lunch; two overs later Phil Jacques fell. Hayden, the oldest member of the Australian side was nearing his hundred and Ishant, India's youngest, bounded in speedily. Not only did Ponting needed to overcome Ishant, his nemesis in Perth, but also Harbhajan Singh, his tormenter in Tests.
A buzz enveloped the ground as the Test approached the halfway mark. Poised on a razor edge, there was no shortage of possibilities. There was also a clear hint of wear-and-tear in the pitch. The runs weren't coming, the flags weren't fluttering, and the kangaroo dolls weren't bobbing. Hot and taut, something had to give.
Hayden partly released the valve at the stroke of 2: sweeping Harbhajan to move to 98. The cheers turned into a roar when Virender Sehwag fumbled at the boundary. The buzz returned when he played out a maiden against Ishant, six consecutive deliveries on and around off stump. Just when you were concentrating on Hayden, Ponting faced Harbhajan and played out four dots before trying to force one through point. Ishant kept it down to one. Too much was happening too soon.
A ball later, Hayden swept around the corner. Even before the umpire could contemplate the possibility of a leg-bye, Hayden was away, arms aloft, celebrating his century. The Matt had passed The Don. He pumped his fist and crossed himself. A milestone had been crossed but the match was still very much in the balance. The mini-session before drinks had produced 24 runs in nine overs. A deep breath later, the contest continued to simmer.
A few moments on Ishant nearly had Ponting three innings in a row. Bowling from around the wicket, he rapped him on the pads, let out a shout for lbw before watching a freaky sequence. Not only did the ball balloon off Ponting's pad but also met his bat on the back-swing and nearly rolled back onto his off stump. 'Ohs' and 'Ahs' flying around the close cordon.
Harbhajan went through a quiet over before Ishant returned. Ponting mis-timed a short one and Hayden left two outside off. Few believed what came next. Ishant, from around the wicket, found a way through the gate with a ball that came in at the last moment. Hayden, facing his 200th ball, thought of the slice to third man before being caught in no-man's land. Before he could adjust his stroke, the off stump was pegged back. Ishant wasn't going to be denied. An outstanding spell was rounded off with a peach. Game on.
Another nervy drinks session followed. The last eight overs had seen eight runs and a wicket. The scales had shifted but only just. A good partnership would revive it. Ishant had come through nine overs in searing conditions on a flat pitch. His figures read 9-2-10-1 - easily the spell of the day.
The moment he was taken off the attack, things seemed to cool off a bit. Harbhajan, who went for eight runs in the over after drinks, slackened and Irfan Pathan, lacking the pace to hustle the batsmen, loosened the grip. The sixth ball of his second over was a rank long-hop delivered at a gentle pace. Ponting watched it eagerly before swatting it away between the two fielders in the deep. It had taken him 53 balls to get his first four but, with that shot, a corner was turned.
The breeze gained strength and the temperature appeared to drop. The buzz gradually turned into chatter. The tensest period of the day, in the hundred minutes after lunch, was over. So much had happened, yet the bigger picture remained intact; a lot of action, very little change. Beautiful.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo