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October 31, 2008
Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden led a solid collective effort from Australia on the third day in Delhi, although by the close there was no guarantee they would avoid the follow-on. Virender Sehwag went from fifth bowling option to major striker with three wickets, including two key breakthroughs in the final session that left Australia needing 76 more runs to ensure India would bat again.
It was a difficult day for Australia and the stumps scorecard did not fully reflect the gripping nature of the contest. There were no mammoth individual efforts like those from Gautam Gambhir and VVS Laxman; the most impressive aspect of Australia's batting was simply their group fight.
Replying to 613 is a psychologically difficult task and India's bowlers did not make it any easier. Even without Anil Kumble for one and a half sessions - he went to hospital for treatment on a cut finger after getting his hands to a fierce Hayden stroke at short midwicket - the attack was constantly threatening.
Sehwag, India's prime offspinner in the absence of Harbhajan Singh, was as dangerous as any of the specialists as he spun some deliveries sharply while others sailed straight on towards the stumps. He gave India momentum at key intervals and his removal of Michael Hussey and Ponting after tea sparked something in his team-mates.
Hussey had worked incredibly hard for his 53, only to see his dead-straight bat beaten by a superb offbreak that clipped the off-stump. Ponting had already departed to a ball that pitched in the rough and turned back to rattle his stumps and the two blows came at just the right time for India.
They were frustrated that Ponting survived a super spell of reverse-swing bowling from Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan, who tested his focus more rigorously than a pair of optometrists. As expected, Ishant troubled him with deliveries that bounced and jagged back in sharply. Zaheer's swing was also a challenge. Despite a couple of indecisive and almost fatal leave-play-leave moments, Ponting somehow survived.
There were some genuinely good strokes from Ponting, who was desperate not to stagnate. He drove Amit Mishra beautifully straight back down the ground for four and pounced on occasional full tosses and long-hops. But for a man who usually makes batting look so simple, this innings was as fluent as his Hindi.
In many ways, that made it even more impressive that he reached 87. His 82-run partnership with Hussey continued to grind Australia towards avoiding the follow-on after the early work of Hayden and Simon Katich. Importantly for Australia, the stings throughout the day were well-spaced, although a swarm of bees that descended on the stadium just after lunch briefly provided a different sort of threat.
When the players and umpires avoided the buzzers by lying flat in their positions - some perpendicular to the pitch, some parallel - the aerial view looked like a human version of the board game Battleship. Sachin Tendulkar was the small and aptly-named destroyer, Hayden the hulking aircraft carrier. And it wasn't long before Sehwag sank the biggest ship with a perfectly targeted missile.
Hayden had survived a few close calls, including an edge off Sehwag that landed centimetres short of Rahul Dravid at first slip, before his fortune ran out. Playing back to a Sehwag delivery that held its line, Hayden was lbw for 83 and Australia were 202 for 2. It was a respectable scoreline but after two of the opposition made double-centuries Australia wanted at least a single hundred from one of their top men.
Still, Hayden's innings was a step in the right direction following his struggles in the first two Tests. He was more composed, he watched the ball closely and waited for opportunities, and rarely did he try to bully the bowlers. He went over the top only when it was safe to do so - he pulled a Mishra long-hop viciously for six and cut Zaheer without risk over the cordon to the vacant third man region.
Generally his bat was straight and it was noticeable that he ignored the sweep that undid him in Mohali. A classic cover-driven boundary off Ishant gave Hayden his first half-century of the tour and he was part of two important partnerships: a 123-run opening stand with Simon Katich and a 79-run compilation with Ponting.
In what was by far Australia's most positive start of the tour, Katich scored more freely than the watchful Hayden and used his feet impressively to the two legspinners. But on 64 he tried to close the face and clip Mishra through leg - a tactic that had worked before - but could only watch on as the ball spat out of the rough and collected his middle stump.
He was not the only batsman who would have that feeling. The task will only get tougher in the final two days of the Test. For now, Australia cannot look that far ahead. Their primary goal must be to knock off the 76 runs they require to avoid the follow-on.