Australia v India, 3rd Test, Melbourne, 4th day December 29, 2003

Wag the tail

Sachin Tendulkar, during the last innings of his worst year in Test cricket

This series has seen some incredible twists so far, but none was forthcoming today. To their credit, India scrapped hard against the odds all day, but eventually bowed to the relentlessness of the Australian attack, which was purposeful if not menacing on a pitch that revealed its treachery subtly, but progressively, as the day wore on. The series is now poised for a finish that all of Australia had been praying for: all to play for at Steve Waugh's farewell game at Sydney. India, while they will be grated by another spineless performance from their tail, and their failure to cash in on their glorious first-innings start, will take it - it is more than they would have hoped for at the start of the series.

To make a match of this, India needed one partnership of 200 and a couple in the region of 70, and they needed at least one batsman to pull out a huge hundred. Throughout the day, they tantalized themselves with promise, but Australia broke though at crucial junctures to deny them fulfillment. For a good part of the day, the contest was absorbing; India went to lunch without losing a wicket, lost only two till they were 253, when the fight went out with Rahul Dravid's dismissal and they collapsed in an embarrassing heap in the space of 16 overs.

India have a middle order that can rival Australia, but once in a while, even they will need some assistance from their tail, and it hasn't been forthcoming for a long while now. Under John Wright and Ganguly, India have acquired contemporariness in many areas, but their woeful tail remains an anachronism. It is nobody's case that bowlers should be selected for their ability to bat, but once selected, it is the mandate of modern cricket that they learn to offer resistance and a few valuable runs. 100 more runs could have invested this match with a potentially tense final day, but between them, India's last four have contributed a sum total of four in both innings. To put it in clearer perspective, that equates to eight wickets for four runs. That is unacceptable.

Till the second new ball was taken - it accounted for six Indian wickets for 61 runs in 19.5 overs - the contest had been gripping and dramatic all day, and never was it more absorbing than when Sachin Tendulkar was at the crease - great batsmen make fascinating viewing when battling poor form. Tendulkar had been the subject of much speculation yesterday by not coming out at number four, a position he is possessive about. But instead of the wild conjecture that the move has attracted, it will be suffice to term it as an acceptance of reality than cowardice on Tendulkar's part, and then hail Ganguly's selfnessness and courage in putting his wicket and limb on line in the dying moments of the day, when batsmen have everything to lose and bowlers have everything to gain. It was a decision taken in the spirit of true leadership. By risking himself, Ganguly had opted to put a bigger premium on the wicket of his struggling champion.

For a while, Tendulkar looked like repaying Ganguly's debt. Walking in after Ganguly was forced to retreat with another sickening blow to his head, Tendulkar executed a stroke of supreme confidence by driving Brett Lee straight down the ground for his second scoring shot. He had been engaged in a long conversation with Sunil Gavaskar before play began this morning, and though Gavaskar later claimed with a straight face that they were making dinner plans, it was a stroke that bore his stamp. He wasn't fluent throughout afterwards, but was diligent in protecting his wicket and resisting temptation. Waugh spread his field evenly to deny him easy runs - his reluctance to post a short-leg was perplexing, though, when Nathan Bracken was bringing the ball back - and Tendulkar nudged and scratched to collect his runs.

Nathan Bracken, with a perfect line and length, was the bowler of the day
© Getty Images

Ironically, it was perhaps his growing confidence that undid him. After lunch, he gloriously cover-drove Brad Williams for four and then rose on his toes to carve him behind point. These were strokes that bore the mastery of Tendulkar and could easily have created the belief that resulted in the ambitious on-the-rise drive that ended in an edge. Like in the second innings at the Adelaide Oval, he had worked himself in only to perish to a lapse of judgment. While his contemporaries have feasted themselves this year, Tendulkar has ended it as his worst in Tests. The only comfort for him is that it has finally ended.

Australia deserve to win this Test because they rallied magnificently after having been put to sword on the first day when Sehwag's audacious batsmamship jangled their nerves. Once they had been allowed back in, they never let their grip loosen, and today their bowlers stuck to their assigned roles admirably. Lee played the hustler in short bursts, and though he went for runs, the wicket of Dravid was an excellent reward; Williams pegged away outside the off stump and brought about Tendulkar's dismissal with a length ball; and Bracken, though he went unrewarded for long, was the bowler of the day, pitching it up and letting the unevenness of the pitch cause innumerable problems for the batsmen.

Finally, a word for Stuart MacGill. No one has been more disparaging about his prospects against India than he himself. Yet, time and time again, he has provided Australia vital breakthroughs. He has so far accounted for Sehwag, Chopra, Tendulkar and of all people, Laxman, on three occasions, including twice in this match. He might not possess the swerve and dip of Shane Warne, but what he has got in Warne's absence is a bagload of wickets and he has not been disgraced by the Indians. He will not be easy to write off.

Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.