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October 12, 2008
When Ricky Ponting spoke of new-age cricket on the eve of the series, no one was really sure what to expect. After all, the two previous Australian tours of India had seen drastically different tactics adopted. The gung-ho approach under Steve Waugh had ultimately proved unsuccessful, and it was by recourse to more traditional methods that the side led by Adam Gilchrist emerged triumphant in 2004, 35 years after Bill Lawry's men had won a five-match battle of attrition.
The fourth day's play at the Chinnaswamy Stadium saw something of a return to the past, with the run-rate hovering just over two until Shane Watson and Brad Haddin injected some momentum late on. Simon Katich made nine from the first 74 balls that he faced and his first shot to the rope came off the 97th delivery bowled to him. It might have seemed negative and pointless to some, but it was clear that lessons had been learnt from the debacles in Kolkata  and Adelaide .
In 2001, Waugh's side arrived on the back of 15 straight wins, and pummelled India in Mumbai thanks largely to a breathtaking sixth-wicket partnership between Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. A less confident team might have gone on the defensive as Harbhajan Singh befuddled the top order to have them reeling at 99 for 5 in response to India's 176. But instead of the stolid straight bat, Gilchrist and Hayden counterattacked with a fluency and ferocity that quickly quieted a huge partisan crowd. By the time they were separated, they had added 197 in 32.1 overs and demolished previous stereotypes about playing spin in India.
Or had they? In Kolkata and Chennai, Australia continued to be ultra-positive, convinced that they had the personnel to prevail in a clash of wills. It seemed almost a matter of pride that they would set the agenda. But that reluctance to take a backward step, to recognise that discretion doesn't equate to cowardice, was to prove extremely costly.
In the cauldron of the Eden Gardens, they tumbled from 161 for 3 at tea to 212 all out on the final evening, gifting India a victory that not even the most one-eyed optimist could have predicted at the end of the third day's play. In Chennai a week later, with Hayden once again in dominant form, they were making serene progress at 340 for 3 when Waugh bizarrely handled the ball. Less than 20 overs later, the innings had subsided to 391 all out. India would press home the advantage and seal their most celebrated series win on the final afternoon.
That was a great Australian team but it lacked the stonewaller who can be such a precious commodity in Indian conditions. With even Justin Langer intent on whacking the leather off the ball, and the front-foot prod the most popular option against the spinners, Harbhajan had the sort of series that most bowlers can only dream of.
It was clear that those harsh lessons had been assimilated by the time the Australians arrived in 2004. After winning comfortably in Bangalore, again on the back of a dazzling stroke-filled riposte from Gilchrist and Michael Clarke, Australia saved the game in Chennai only because Damien Martyn and Jason Gillespie batted time the old-fashioned way, adding 139 in 56 overs to keep India at bay.
Both men had been in the XI that contrived to lose a game after scoring 556 in the first innings in Adelaide. With Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, the bogeymen from Kolkata, once again at the forefront of an Indian revival, Australia had been kept to a lead of just 33. But on a pitch that was hardly a sticky one or a minefield, they imploded spectacularly the second time. Ajit Agarkar had a dream afternoon that was completely at odds with his otherwise mediocre Test career, as the batsmen fell one after another due to poor strokes. Katich's dismissal to a miscued pull summed up Australia's day and India were left with 230 to win.
But there was no repeat of that adventurism in Bangalore. The strokeplayers like Hayden and Ricky Ponting looked ill at ease. As Watson admitted later, Harbhajan and the Indian pace bowlers bowled beautifully, getting sharp turn and reverse to trouble the very best. "We had to wait for the loose balls, and there weren't too many of those," he said. "There wasn't really a plan. With Zaheer getting big movement, I was just trying to survive."
The side of 2001, far superior to this one, lacked that pragmatic streak, and that as much as Harbhajan's bowling, was to be its downfall. There's nothing new-age about scoring at 2.8 runs an over, but by recognising that they have limitations and playing accordingly, Ponting's side have managed to put themselves on the threshold of a third successive victory at this venue. When the kites start hovering overhead on Monday morning, it will be the Indians that need to be wary.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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