India's chance to pass fourth-innings test
India's batsmen have an opportunity to slay a demon: batting to save a Test. It's their third opportunity to pass such an examination in 2008. They would want to forget the first two efforts.
In January, Australia declared shortly before lunch on the final day in Sydney, a situation that is likely to recur tomorrow. India were one down at the break but all out in 70.5 overs with minutes to go before stumps. A few months later in Colombo, Sri Lanka made India follow on with a little more than five sessions to go. They didn't even last two. At this venue in 2005, India were 103 for 1 at lunch on the fifth day against Pakistan. After Virender Sehwag's dismissal, however, they batted in super-slow mode and collapsed for 214.
The dangers they face in trying to keep this Test off that list include the vagaries of a fifth-day pitch, an accurate pace attack and customised field placements. In the 13th over of the Australian innings, Zaheer Khan trapped Matthew Hayden lbw with late swing; during the final session an offbreak from Harbhajan Singh spat off the pitch and bounced so high that Shane Watson and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were both beaten. The uncertainties in bounce, and the slowness of the pitch, helped exert control over the scoring rate. Both factors will be enhanced on day five.
The Indian fast bowlers, Zaheer and Ishant Sharma, looked the most threatening in the given conditions. They swung the new ball, got the old one to reverse early and forced the batsman to play by bowling straight. Australia possess a four-pronged pace attack: Stuart Clark, elbow injury permitting, will attempt to contain at one end; Brett Lee and Watson will try to hit pads and stumps with inswing or reverse; Johnson's deliveries slanted across the right-handers tempt them into driving on a slow pitch.
The Indians have plenty of first-innings mistakes to learn form where they fell into specific traps. Gautam Gambhir played across the line to an inswinger; Sehwag edged a wide delivery; Sachin Tendulkar drove too hard at a slow ball and spooned a catch. VVS Laxman and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were unable to find new areas of opportunity once their strong zones were cut off.
Harbhajan and Zaheer showed that aggressive batting could succeed in beating the pitch and the field. Their approach, blocking when they had to and trying to force the pace at other times, was not a one-off. Watson and Brad Haddin made it work as well. The Australians were scoring at just over two an over but the Watson-Haddin partnership went along at nearly four.
The key to India's chances could lie with the batsman who best dealt with the stifling conditions in the first innings - Rahul Dravid and his ability to bat time irrespective of whether runs are forthcoming. He has the best fourth innings - 57.41 since 2000 - among the Indian batsmen. Gambhir averages 55 but he's played only four innings while Ganguly, Tendulkar and Laxman are below 40. Sehwag scored his only second-innings century earlier this year and averages 30 in the final innings.
The examination of India's much-vaunted batting line-up will begin the moment Ricky Ponting decides it's time to declare on Monday.