Test in the balance
Adelaide-Australia met their first genuine challenge of the series with typical, bloody-minded efficiency on the third day of the third Test yesterday but West Indian perseverance prevented them making the most of several favourable positions.
Ricky Ponting shared successive, untroubled partnerships of 123 with Mark Waugh and 59 with Damien Martyn that carried Australia to within 22 of the Larainspired West Indies total of 391 with five wickets in tact.
A match-winning lead loomed but once the venerable Courtney Walsh produced one of his specials to remove Ponting to a keeper's catch for 92, his lesser accomplices, Merv Dillon and Nixon McLean, followed the lead with the next three wickets for 12 runs.
When the first rain in Adelaide for 38 days brought the day to a gloomy and premature end, under the floodlights that had been switched on the ball before Ponting's dismissal, the contest was dead even.
As another 12 overs remained, it was welcome reprieve for the West Indies from the probablity of a few difficult overs in artificial light. As it stood, Australia held a marginal lead at 403 for nine with the prospect of dealing next time round with a dry, last day pitch already zig-zagged with widening cracks.
The result would be determined by which team coped with the pressure and the conditions better from here on.
On both counts, that would be Australia as the contrasting records of the two clearly confirm. But Brian Lara's sudden and spectacular return to form, with his 231 against Australia "A" and 182 in the first innings in the past week, is the critical variable in the equation.
The evidence of the first three days indicated a renewed spirit in the West Indies team, clearly inspired by Lara's brilliance.
It was in danger of dsintegrating on the previous afternoon when Michael Slater and Matthew Hayden collared rubbish bowling in an opening partnership of 159 before a fortunate run out and two late wickets to the speculative off-spin of the 19-year-old debutant Marlon Samuels restored confidence.
Until the last hour yesterday, the West Indies pegged away to defensive fields for the reward of only two wickets as Australia built their total. They never lost their focus, inspite of the growing total and three incidents in the first session that might have distracted them.
Ponting was 10 when McLean's authentic lbw claim was negated by a no-ball. The ubiquitous television "snickometer" hinted that Waugh had touched a catch to the keeper off Samuels at 39 but umpire Steve Davis seemed to have been put off by Jacobs' simultaneous claim to square-leg for a stumping.
The clearest chance came two overs before lunch when Ponting, 41, edged a drive at the persistent Dillon.
It flew to Lara's left at solitary slip and the batting champion let the twohanded catch go to grass that would have made Australia 260 for five.
By then, their only success was the nightwatchman Jason Gillespie, lbw to Walsh after 20 minutes. It was two-and-a-half hours before they gained another, just when Australia had laid the foundations of a massive score.
Waugh, playing tentatively from the crease, was lbw for a laboured 63 (three hours, 20 minutes, 142 balls) in the eighth over with the second new ball during an outstanding spell of stamina and accuracy by Merv Dillon.
Severely punished for his waywardness by Slater on the previous afternoon, Dillon improved to the extent that he sent down 17 consecutive overs, broken only by lunch and a break for 10 minutes to rain. They cost him only 46 and had the satisfying return of Waugh's wicket.
Damien Martyn appeared next, where Steve Waugh normally would, and played with as much aplomb as the absent, injured captain to consolidate Australia's powerful position.
But the West Indies would not yield, as they had done so frequently in the first two Tests. Only Marlon Black of the four fast bowlers did not exert control, stymied by his inexperience and the lack of pace in the pitch.
It took a quality delivery from Walsh to dislodge Ponting eight short of his eighth Test hundred 25 minutes after tea. He had been in three hours, 52 minutes and 156 balls when he got one that straightened and lifted to find the edge on its way to Jacobs.
It was the last of Walsh for the day. McLean replaced him and promptly accounted for stand-in captain Adam Gilchrist and Colin Miller to cut shots, the former to the keeper, the latter to point.
Dillon completed a satisfying personal day by persuading umpire Davis that his bouncer had taken Stuart MacGill's glove, rather than helmet, on the way through to the keeper.