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October 12, 2008
Australia's cricket on the fourth day was not pretty but the final result - a 263-run lead - was a fine outcome on a day when India harassed them intensely in all aspects of the game. Led by Zaheer Khan with the bat in the morning and Harbhajan Singh with the ball in the afternoon, India fought and thought, tested and pestered, and still somehow found themselves facing a tough final-day chase. At least they shortened the odds of a draw.
For Ricky Ponting it was a delicate balancing act. He needed to give his men enough hours to dismiss India and the timing was even more important with the news that Stuart Clark was nursing an elbow injury. It prevented him from bowling in the morning and threatened to leave the attack thin if it carried into the final day.
Australia also needed enough runs to ensure safety from a powerful India batting line-up that featured at its top Virender Sehwag, a man who frightens opponents with an urgent and potentially lethal approach to target-chasing. How could Ponting decide on a suitable total? The last time the teams met in a Test in Bangalore, Australia set a hefty fourth-innings target of 457 and India were dismissed for 239. On a tricky surface with only 240 runs scored on the fourth day, 239 could have been a good enough buffer.
Luckily for the visitors, Brad Haddin and Shane Watson found the going smoother than their more fancied colleagues and built a hugely important 65-run stand late in the day. They took their cue from India's lower order and played their shots, took some chances and reaped the benefits. Playing for survival was a risky tactic on a pitch that was gradually wearing away, as Simon Katich and his top-order friends discovered.
Facing up to a fierce examination from Harbhajan, Katich looked about as comfortable as Indiana Jones in a snakepit. But if problem number one for Ponting is Clark's elbow, problem number two is that he doesn't have a Harbhajan in his armoury.
Having had little impact in the first innings, Harbhajan, who carried most of the spin load as Anil Kumble battled a shoulder injury, found turn and bounce and exploited the breaking pitch. Michael Hussey fell to a topspinner that hit a crack, transformed into a Shane Warne-like legbreak, and hit his off stump. Katich fended a high-bouncing topspinner to silly mid off. Only when Haddin and Watson attacked and hit over the top did Harbhajan look vulnerable.
For much of the innings Australia's batsmen, led by Katich, seemed to think scoring was done by composers, not cricketers. Katich had problems getting off strike and at one stage when he and a slightly more confident Hussey were both on 10, Katich had faced 75 balls to Hussey's 18. Sensing the tension, India attacked at every opportunity, with Mahendra Singh Dhoni often calling the shots as Kumble rested off the field.
Ponting was targeted by Harbhajan with men crowded around the bat and despite a couple of edgy moments he survived - at least long enough to fall to his other developing nemesis, Ishant Sharma. Ishant tried to lure Ponting with the offspinning slower ball that had earned him two first-innings wickets but Australia's captain was alert to the ploy. However, with the next delivery Ishant tried a different style slower ball - he simply didn't roll his arm over as quickly - and Ponting, on 17, obligingly prodded to the short midwicket placed for that purpose.
Ishant's more conventional slower one did account for Michael Clarke, who nudged a drive to short cover just as Haddin and Cameron White had done on day two. That India's fast men succeeded might have buoyed Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson, who watched on as Matthew Hayden battled extravagant swing from Zaheer and was trapped lbw for 13.
Hard as it was for Hayden and friends, the 70-run first-innings advantage Australia had secured was vital. It could have been so much greater but for terrific lower-order resistance from Zaheer and his bowling mates. After Harbhajan started the batting fightback late on the third afternoon, Zaheer continued it on the fourth morning.
His unbeaten 57 was his second Test half-century - his first had come against Bangladesh - and he combined in useful partnerships of 31 with Kumble and 27 with Ishant. Following India's top-order struggles, it was a magnificent result for their final three pairs to add 128 of the team's 360.
They batted for nearly an hour and a half in the first session, grinding out 47 valuable runs that frustrated an Australia attack that had been on top for most of the previous day. Zaheer played in a more restrained fashion than on Saturday and justified his promotion ahead of Kumble, who gave him an appreciative hug when Zaheer's fifty came up with a clip behind square leg for two off Johnson.
Eventually Australia finished the job. Watson ended up with 3 for 45 when he jagged one back to trap Kumble in front and Clarke bowled Ishant to secure his second wicket. But the successes were a long way apart. Australia must significantly shorten the gap between their celebrations on the final day if they are to avoid a disappointing result.
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