Ishant finally makes an impact
Six years ago, Australia set India 229 to win a Test match in Chennai. India knocked off 19 before stumps on the fourth day, but an overnight deluge reduced Chepauk to a swamp and deprived what would have been a capacity crowd of a nailbiting climax. At Mohali tomorrow, rain is unlikely to be a factor and this abbreviated series will almost certainly get the result that sets up the Bangalore game as a must-win for one side.
Australia are clear favourites, having taken four top-order wickets. VVS Laxman, who averages nearly 50 in the team's second innings, is struggling with back spasms and will only bat if required, while the tail will need to offer far sterner resistance than they did on the third afternoon.
Successful fourth-innings chases of this magnitude are rare, and India have pulled off just two against Australia when the target has been in excess of 200. The only instance on Indian soil came as far back as 46 years ago, when sedate half-centuries from Dilip Sardesai and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, combined with a rather more brisk 30 from Chandu Borde saw them edge past a 254-run target.
After some spectacular final-day collapses in the 1990s and the early part of the new millennium, India have been less of a soft touch in recent times. At Chennai in 2008, they famously chased down 387 against England after Sehwag's blazing 83 on the fourth evening ensured that they could bat normally on the final day. As recently as August, they slumped to 62 for 4 at the P Sara Oval in Colombo before Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar and Suresh Raina saw them past 257 with a measure of comfort.
The drama of the afternoon seemed a world away as Australia dominated most of a morning session in which India were as listless as they had been on the opening day. Then, with the score on 87 - Australia's unlucky number - it all changed. It was a filthy delivery from Ishant, short and wide, but Watson, who had batted with real purpose for 56, only dragged it on.
Ricky Ponting followed, essaying an equally poor pull and Ishant could have had three in the over but for a no-ball referral from Billy Bowden. Michael Clarke was walking off by the time he went up to the TV umpire, and Ishant's emotions, after a frankly rotten match, boiled over. "When you get excited, run in really fast and are desperate for a wicket, you make these kind of mistakes," he said after the day's play. "But you need to control your breath and emotions and try to get a good rhythm. The seniors help when I get excited. He [Bowden] was doing his job and I was doing mine. If he's given a no-ball, then it's a no-ball."
Daljit Singh, the curator, suggested that the pitch played quicker on the fourth day as a result of the moisture in it having evaporated after three days of sunshine. Ishant bowled a clever short ball to nail Clarke - "I think there was more bounce compared to the first innings," he said - and was relieved to be back among the wickets after a string of indifferent performances that he attributed to a minor tweak in his approach to the wicket.
"I struggled in Sri Lanka as well because I have shortened my run-up by two steps," he said. "It's just two steps, but it's taking time to find my old rhythm. I'm missing my steps a little bit. I spoke to Zak about it, and a few seniors in my team. The good thing is that I'm still bowling at the same pace that I was getting with my previous run-up."
India's pursuit of 216 got off to the worst possible start, but having benefited from a terrible decision to get rid of Michael Hussey, the Indians weren't about to point the finger at the officials after Gautam Gambhir whacked the ball on to his pad and watched bemused as Bowden lifted the crooked finger. "That's part and parcel of the game," said Ishant. "No one feels good about that but you can only control what's in your hands."
Only Tendulkar, hero of the Chennai chase, and MS Dhoni remain of the specialist batsmen and the 161 runs needed will appear a million miles away if either is dismissed early on the final morning. Ben Hilfenhaus, who bowled a fabulous spell to send India into a tailspin before stumps, promised to put Tendulkar "under the pump" and there will be more than a few damaged cuticles in the Indian dressing room after he takes fresh guard tomorrow. "When four of your best batsmen get out, the mood is a little bit tense," said Ishant. "But everyone is in a good frame of mind and we believe that whoever is at the crease can do a job for the team. We'll try our level best."