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July 12, 2004
Australia 517 and 2 for 194 (Hayden 68*, Martyn 52*) lead Sri Lanka 455 (Samaraweera 70) by 256 runs
Today, a day that rained water, wickets and runs, Australia muscled themselves into a position whereby they might yet win a game that had looked to be going nowhere. First they knocked over Sri Lanka's lower order, then they knocked up a 256-run lead that should enable them to declare sometime in the morning. Little of it was pretty, all of it was pretty effective. And so the stage is set for a fairytale.
Tomorrow, an out-of-form legspin bowler will attempt to take five wickets to win a Test match and set a new world record. He must do so against a deep batting line-up on a featherbed pitch with rain in the offing. For anyone else, it might seem impossible. For Shane Warne, the impossible is merely a challenge. Fairytales, grim and golden, are what happen when he wakes up most mornings.
It would be some kind of ending to what has been a funny kind of Test. Sixes have been slugged and spectacular catches pouched. Three glorious hundreds have been struck. And yet somehow this game - this series for that matter - has failed to light up the imagination. It's been fun to watch, hard to care.
Perhaps it's because, no matter what Cricket Australia tell us, our bodies still tell us it's the footy season. Perhaps it's to do with the crowds, not much bigger - though several thousand decibels more enthusiastic - than you might find on a Pura Cup Sunday. Or maybe it's because we have spent most of the past fortnight talking about a bloke who, for all his wickets and wiles and gruff swagger, hasn't bowled particularly well.
Warne's ball that got rid of Upul Chandana was actually one of his better ones. The batsman, seeking to swing him over the leg side, was deceived by the flight and nearly lost his footing. Adam Gilchrist snapped up the stumping and No. 523 was in the bag, four more than Courtney Walsh, four fewer than Muttiah Muralitharan, one elusive five-wicket haul away from immortality.
Moments earlier, drift and bite and guile had looked non-existent; any spin was so slow as to be almost incidental. Chandana, as if to emphasise the point, leant forward on one knee and slog-swept the greatest legspinner the world has ever seen over mid-on for six. Still, adversity and Warne are old sparring partners. You'd be a fool not to keep at least one eye on the telly tomorrow afternoon.
Apart from anything, record or no record, a titanic finish might yet be on the cards. A late flurry in fading light, with Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn crashing 67 runs in the last nine overs, has afforded Ricky Ponting the luxury of a possible declaration within an hour or so of tomorrow's resumption. A couple of hours earlier things hadn't looked nearly so cosy.
The Australians began their second innings, 62 runs ahead, with an unfamiliar note of caution. After Justin Langer departed early, nibbling at Nuwan Zoysa, only eight runs were added in six overs after tea. Chaminda Vaas and Thilan Samaraweera, the part-time spinner, kept a stifling line and length. Ponting, in particular, found himself bogged down for long periods on his way to 45.
It fell to Martyn, in pristine touch, to unfurl his second masterpiece of timing and placement for the match, skating to his half-century in only 51 balls. Hayden eventually leapt into stride too. Not out on 68, he is on track for his second hundred of the match, a feat he has previously achieved against England in 2002-03 and which only seven men in Test history have done twice. By the end, when Hayden and Martyn accepted the offer of bad light with nine overs still up their sleeves, talk had turned to victory.
Victory seemed a purely hypothetical proposition this morning when heavy showers delayed the start by more than two hours. Lunch was taken and play reduced to two extended sessions of almost three hours each. The only early moment of misadventure came when Romesh Kaluwitharana attempted to cut too close to his body, Warne juggling a high catch at slip off Glenn McGrath's bowling.
Otherwise the Sri Lankans meandered along at less than two runs an over, their batting as grey as the sky overhead. Gradually the sun broke through and the Australians followed suit, courtesy of some probing bowling and predatory fielding. Ponting led by example at second slip, plucking Samaraweera (7 for 445) with a sharp diving catch to his left, then mirroring that effort with an awkward catch to his right off Vaas (8 for 455). Samaraweera fell for 70, the victim of a mean-fisted spell from Jason Gillespie, who had shaken him up in the previous over with a steepling bouncer that followed his head and almost grazed his gloves.
Chandana followed soon afterwards and Sri Lanka, resuming on 5 for 411, had lost their last four for 10 when Lasith Malinga was run out for his third duck in three Test innings. Slow to set off for an easy single, he succumbed to an electric fielding cameo from Darren Lehmann. Not known for his outfield agility, Lehmann picked up the ball at deepish mid-on and hurled down the stumps at the faraway non-striker's end.
With the forecast uncertain and the pitch unyielding, a draw still looms as the likeliest outcome. But if Lehmann is capable of doing that, the Sri Lankans might well be thinking, anything is surely possible.
Tomorrow, Shane Warne may just prove it.
Christian Ryan is the editor of Wisden Cricinfo in Australia.
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