March 21, 2001

Series interestingly poised as Harbhajan works his magic again

The next time the Australians come to India, they might well ask for a change in playing conditions. Instead of the standard three sessions of play, the Aussies could ask for just two sessions a day. After tea, the Australians seem to freeze up, lose their footing and with it their wickets. On three occasions in the series so far, the Australians have lost seven wickets in the last session of play. In turn Harbhajan Singh operating after tea is like the mythical werewolf looking up at the full moon. First there's a loud howl asking the question, then there's the kill. With 5/82, Harbhajan Singh pegged the Aussies back to 241/7, leaving them leading by 131 runs with one day to play in the third and final Test against India at the MA Chidambaram stadium on Wednesday.

Beginning the day on 480/9, there was not much the pair of Sairaj Bahutule and Nilesh Kulkarni could look forward to. Unlike some of the batsmen who followed him out to the middle, the Mumbai legspinner did not attempt any ambitious strokes. For company Bahutule had Mumbai team mate Kulkarni. As it happened, the pair belied expectations and played out more than 45 minutes, frustrating the visitors. When the last wicket fell, India had managed to extend their score to 501 and lead to 110 thanks to an unbeaten 21 from Bahutule.

The Aussies in turn began very well, going in to lunch without losing a wicket. In this Australian team you cannot find two cricketers who have had more contrasting tours of India than the opening pair. Matthew Hayden came to India as an effective batsman but a bit vulnerable against spin bowling. Almost never failing, Hayden has batted with panache taking on anything the spinners dished out. Michael Slater came to India with a reputation of being a flashy strokemaker, someone who would blaze a trail and give Australia the initiative early on. Failing with the bat, Slater has also compounded his woes by getting into an unnecessary fracas over an umpiring decision. In their own disparate yet equally effective ways, Slater and Hayden were unbeaten on 34 apiece when lunch was called.

After the break however, everything changed. Perhaps it's the heat that's getting to the Aussies, perhaps the pressure. On a wicket that is not yet doing anything that a fourth day wicket should not do, the visitors lost wickets at regular intervals. Matthew Hayden was the first to go, playing a shot he has employed with great success. Heaving Kulkarni towards midwicket, Hayden departed as Zaheer Khan running in from the fence completed a good catch. Hayden had made 35, and was Kulkarni's second wicket in Test cricket, coming 589 balls after the Mumbai left arm spinner picked his maiden wicket, way back in August 1997 at Colombo.

Adam Gilchrist was promoted to number three, a move that was a big gamble in the best of circumstances. Having scored just one run in his previous three Test innings, Gilchrist could not have been in a positive frame of mind. Padding up to a ball from Harbhajan Singh that did not turn as he expected, the Australian stumper was trapped plumb in front for one.

Slater looked like he might be coming out of a lean patch. After stroking the ball confidently early on, Slater failed to come good. Edging Harbhajan Singh to VVS Laxman at slip, Slater departed just when a big innings was needed of him.

Justin Langer, coming in at number four began by playing well within himself. When the ball was there to be hit, Langer lofted well, his six over midwicket off Kulkarni a case in point. However Langer too could not go on, falling to the Harbhajan-Laxman combination. Langer's 21 propped up the Australian total but clearly did not do enough.

Mark Waugh got into a very good rhythm against Sachin Tendulkar, bowling his leg breaks from the V Pattabhiraman Gate End. Although Tendulkar managed to get a fair bit of turn from the rough, Mark Waugh steadily grew comfortable. Despite getting well set, he fell to a spinner. The manner of his dismissal was not new in any respect. Harbhajan Singh tossed up an off break on middle and off that gripped the wicket and spun into the right hander. Going back and across Waugh turned the ball round the corner. Rahul Dravid at backward short leg, showed superb reflexes, plucked the ball out of the air. Waugh had made 57 (142 mins, 139 balls, 7 fours), the highest by an Australian at that point.

Ricky Ponting, under pressure the moment he came on fell to the guile of Harbhajan Singh. Prodding at a ball that bounced a bit more than he expected, Ponting gloved the ball to Dravid at forward short leg. The 11 that Ponting managed was by far his best score in Test innings this series.

Steve Waugh though continued to prove that he is the man for crisis situations. Unbeaten on a doughty 43, the Australian skipper was however without a partner after the last ball of the day. Padding up to Harbhajan Singh, Warne was rapped on the back leg right in front of the wickets. The finger went up and Australia had lost their seventh wicket on 241.