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January 6, 2009
Ricky Ponting is not known for his generosity to opposition teams but his sporting declaration has set up a fascinating final day at the SCG, where South Africa need 314 more runs with nine wickets in hand. The match is a dead rubber but that's a deceptive term; a South African victory will bounce them up to the No. 1 Test ranking and Ponting would go down in history as the first captain to lead Australia to a 0-3 loss at home.
However, for that to happen South Africa would need their third miracle of the series, almost enough to push for sainthood, and with Graeme Smith unlikely to bat their task is even tougher. Still, by Ponting's conservative standards his decision to set the visitors 376 in nearly four full sessions was a brave one. This was a team that had chased 414 in Perth. Ponting had found the cracking surface easier than it looked in posting a half-century and Hashim Amla and Neil McKenzie also seemed relatively comfortable after coming together at 1 for 2.
Morne Morkel was an odd choice to open in the absence of the injured Smith and it was a plan that took only two balls to fail. Morkel spooned his second delivery to mid-on to give Doug Bollinger his first Test wicket but it was the only reason for Australia to cheer in the final two hours. Amla and McKenzie were tested by balls that jagged off the cracks but they showed impressive concentration to survive and post a 60-run partnership.
Brad Haddin put down a tough chance diving to his right when Amla was on 5 and it could yet prove a costly miss on a day when Australia had until then tightened their hold on the match. It was also a day when Matthew Hayden's grip on his position at the top of the order weakened further. Hayden came into the game dead-batting speculation that it could be his final appearance but his inability to post a half-century in the home Tests has left him vulnerable. He did manage 39 in this innings and it was the first time this summer that he has scored more than his age, but openers are not there to post handy 30s.
A few cracking drives and clips over leg hinted at a change of form but the teasing moments have been there all series and reality kicked back in when he tried to launch Morkel over mid-on and inside-edged onto his stumps. As he walked off the ground to a standing ovation, with onlookers eagle-eyed for any tip-off that he might retire, a small bat-raise was the only clue that it could have been his farewell. There was no cause for celebration but he had at least helped Australia move closer to a win or a draw.
Ponting, Simon Katich, Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey all made contributions after Hayden departed but Australia's effort was not breathtaking, it was more an innings than meandered like the snaking crack around which the batsmen played. The out-of-form Hussey was pleased not to lose his wicket and he finished unbeaten on 45, having struck a couple of boundaries that would bring him confidence.
The declaration came when Clarke holed out to Paul Harris for 41, ending a 76-run stand with Hussey that had begun when Katich was lbw for 61. It was a strange dismissal: Dale Steyn came around the wicket and struck Katich in line but made no appeal whatsoever. However, Mark Boucher asked the question and Asoka de Silva made the fair call that the ball would have hit leg stump, surprising not only the batsman but the bowler as well.
Katich's innings was a tough grind, for him and the spectators. Early in the day he faced five consecutive maidens from Jacques Kallis and it took him 40 balls and nearly an hour to tick his score over from 17 to 18. Ponting was the only batsman who looked truly comfortable with the breaking surface and he launched nine boundaries, including some classic pulls and back-foot drives.
He had come to the crease on a king pair and nearly completed it when he tried to leave his first delivery from Morkel but didn't get the bat out of the way and the edge flew past the stumps and off to the boundary. Eventually it was an inside edge off Morkel that did for Ponting on 53 and he headed inside to ponder declaration times. Overnight he may wish he'd pondered for a bit longer.
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