Australia v India

Fourth Test

Australia v India

Matthew Engel

At Sydney, January 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 2004. Drawn. Toss: India.

In strict cricketing terms, this should be remembered for the way India batted Australia out of the game, ensuring a drawn series, maintaining their hold on the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and consolidating their presumed new position as No. 1 contenders to Australia's crown. But cricket was a secondary feature of this extraordinary occasion, a mere backdrop. The contest was compelling enough, but it was taken over - hijacked almost - for a farewell the like of which cricket, normally a diffident kind of sport, had never seen.

Steve Waugh's 168th and positively last Test (no one would dare attempt a comeback after this) turned into one long wallow, starting with adulatory wrap-around newspaper souvenir supplements and culminating in Waugh being chaired round the SCG by his team-mates. John Williamson's nostalgic anthem "True Blue'' competed with the roars of a record last-day crowd, many waving red rags, Waugh's customary comfort-object. No one had ever left the cricketing stage like this; no one had dared.

The show resulted from a benign (though presumably tacit) conspiracy between Cricket Australia, Waugh's personal management, the broadcasters Channel Nine, and the Murdoch press, to whom Waugh was contracted. Most cricketers, especially captains, go when the selectors choose: Waugh himself was forced out of the one-day captaincy in disagreeable circumstances two years earlier. By announcing his retirement date from Test cricket in advance, he controlled the timing. The other parties were able to leap aboard for the ride, and everyone cashed in. The total crowd of 181,063 had been surpassed at Sydney only by the 1946-47 Ashes Test, which lasted six days.

The Indians? They just dominated the Test match. The most important decision of the game was made by Ganguly, who called correctly and condemned Australia to the field on a belting wicket, in extreme heat, with a weakened attack and less than 72 hours after the previous Test. The crowd had come to watch Waugh, and could indeed watch him throughout the first two days: standing at mid-off, issuing occasional instructions and - provided they didn't blink - bowling a couple of overs.

It was tough for Australia on the first day, which started with a blistering 72 from Sehwag and an outbreak of no-balls from Lee. But there were even more ominous features for Australia. They were set intently, behind the grille of his helmet, and they belonged to Tendulkar. Shrewd observers of the series sensed that he might impose himself in this Test, though no one would have guessed quite how. Tendulkar had thought through his problems to the point of cutting out one of his most distinguished strokes, abandoning the cover-drive and instead just waiting for the chance to hit to leg. He maintained this policy for ten hours 13 minutes and 436 deliveries, scoring an unbeaten 241, his highest first-class score and perhaps the highest ever made by a man still nowhere near his own top form. Twenty-eight of his 33 fours and 188 of his runs came on the leg side. His 32nd Test hundred matched Waugh; only Sunil Gavaskar, on 34, remained ahead. He was also the fourth man to reach 9,000 Test runs, two days ahead of Brian Lara in Cape Town.

Tendulkar put on 353, an Indian fourth-wicket record, with Laxman, whose 178 was of a different order: a lovely innings, full of perfectly timed caresses. The crowd never gave the partnership the credit it deserved, partly because they were obsessed with Waugh, partly because the over-elaborate Sydney scoreboard's failings meant only statisticians noted the 300 stand.

When Laxman was out, it was 547 for four, which in a normal series would be deemed unassailable. But Australia had scored 556 in Adelaide and lost, and Ganguly rightly decided to bat on and on, 39 minutes into the third day. This infuriated many Australians, including the TV commentators, who had been anticipating the declaration minute by minute the previous evening.

It was yet another sign, however, that India were now playing cricket every bit as ruthlessly as Australia. When Ganguly finally gave over, at 705 for seven - India's highest Test total, and the second-highest conceded by Australia - the response was predictably savage. The Australian openers put on 147 and the once-introspective Langer played an innings so impertinently confident that he felt able to reach his hundred with a reverse sweep. At 214 for one, Australia might even have been sniffing first-innings lead. However, the real difference between the teams lay not in the batting, nor in the modest seam bowling, but in the fact that India had a spinner capable of maintaining control while Australia did not. MacGill had offered a four-ball almost every over; Kumble varied his pace while maintaining his line and was rewarded with eight for 141. The third-day crowd were mostly interested in Waugh, who scored a cameo 40, after which they streamed out. Waugh himself was still intent on business and refused to doff his helmet, sensing this was not his real farewell innings. Less noticed, Katich became the fourth centurion of the game next day with an innings of lithe grace and huge promise, thus restricting India's lead to 231.

Again, Ganguly was criticised by pundits for not enforcing the follow-on, though again he was right: avoiding any risk of defeat before thinking of victory. Dravid and Tendulkar extended the lead to 442 before Kumble set to work again, sharing the new ball on the fourth evening. Realistically, Australia never had much chance of chasing that. But this match had long since left reality behind. At 196 for four there was some danger of an Aussie defeat, but that presupposed a failure by Waugh. Not here, not today. He never quite got the century all Australia wanted - though his 15 fours were all cheered as if he had - and certainly never glimpsed victory. But he batted with the ease and grace of a man at the peak of his career, flicking the ball to the off-side boundary whenever the spinners dropped short until he got to 80 and was caught, trying to hit Kumble for six, at deep square leg. "It shows that after 168 Tests you can still lose the plot under pressure," said Waugh. Katich was staunch again; Kumble finished with 12 for 279. Their achievements were lost amid the hubbub. Then, cricket being cricket, Waugh finally slipped away, not quite to oblivion, merely to New South Wales v Victoria at Newcastle.

Man of the Match: S. R. Tendulkar. Attendance: 181,063. Man of the Series: R. Dravid.

© John Wisden & Co