India avoid Sydney repeat
This was how it was supposed to end at the Sydney Cricket Ground last January, with India batting spiritedly to save the game after a challenging Australian declaration had left them with just over two sessions to tilt at windmills. Sadly, what happened on the field on January 6 was largely obscured in the aftermath of several controversies, and jibes back and forth about the misunderstood spirit of cricket.
India were bowled out in 70.5 overs that day and even allowing for an ordinary decision or two, that was simply inexcusable. They weren't faced with Laker or Warne either. Instead, it was Michael Clarke's left-arm spin that pushed them over the precipice as the shadows lengthened over one of the game's most famous venues.
VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar were two of the prime culprits on that occasion, both succumbing to a superb mid-afternoon spell from Stuart Clark. They faced just 50 balls between them, and it was left to Anil Kumble and Mahendra Singh Dhoni to try and lead India to safety, a task they almost accomplished before those five deliveries from Clarke undid all the hard work.
When Tendulkar arrived at the wicket on Monday morning, India still needed to bat nearly 75 overs to survive. And when Laxman joined him after a clever slower ball from Mitchell Johnson had dismissed Gautam Gambhir, there were still 56.2 overs to be bowled. Had one of them fallen then, it could conceivably have been curtains. Apart from a weather-aided escape at Lord's last year, India's record at saving games on the final day is pretty undistinguished, with the cataclysmic collapse the rule rather than the exception.
The declaration from Ponting was perfectly timed. In Sydney, Australia had batted on for 24 overs and taken the lead to 332 before sending India in. At the Chinnaswamy Stadium, with 299 required from 83 overs, an Indian win wasn't completely implausible, though Virender Sehwag's early exit made it a statistical possibility rather than a realistic one.
One of the recurring criticisms of Tendulkar down the years has been his fourth-innings record. Of the 39 centuries, only two [Old Trafford, 1990 and Chennai, 1999] have come in the last innings of a game. There have only been three half-centuries [49 in total] and the average [33.60] is way below his overall figure. Though the news crews and reporters were gearing up to herald Brian Lara being eclipsed as Test cricket's leading scorer, it was infinitely more important that he stay at the crease long enough to make the game safe.
With Gambhir and then Laxman providing the support, he just about managed to do that. It wasn't always pretty. It never is when men that love to play their strokes are reduced to survival mode. There were anxious moments too. The odd ball would go through at shoestring height, while Cameron White got one to take off past the outside edge of Tendulkar's bat in a manner reminiscent of the old Kumble.
By the time White picked up the most prized wicket a debutant could hope for, 52.2 overs had elapsed and the light was fading rapidly. Tendulkar had made 49 from 126 balls, seldom moving out of second gear. Perhaps mindful of one final-day collapse too many, there had never been any suggestion that he would go for the runs.
Laxman ended up facing 142 deliveries, and he and Sourav Ganguly, whose dismissal was one of the flashpoints for the war of words in Sydney, saw it through to the murky end without undue alarms. Despite being off the field for 39 minutes soon after tea, there were no further lapses in concentration in the 15 overs that followed.
Australia gave it everything, and you wondered how much of a difference Andrew Symonds, another of the Sydney protagonists, might have made. Clarke won the plaudits that day, but Symonds too took three wickets, including Dhoni. White bowled tidily enough, but there was no dramatic turn or variation to trouble a batsman of Laxman's class.
There was no let-up in intensity from either side, and though a few words were exchanged, there was an absence of the malice that so soured relations in Sydney. When the players walked off soon after tea once the umpires decided that the light was poor, Matthew Hayden and Ganguly chatted amiably enough, while Clark and Brad Haddin exchanged pleasantries with Laxman. Clark, who has family in Bangalore, even tried out Laxman's bat, though Ponting will hope that his skills with the willow aren't unduly tested as the series progresses.
So, a day that started with Kumble dropping a return catch - will wicket No. 617 ever come? - ended with his team ceding no ground at a venue where they have so often been outclassed during the past decade. They had batted 73 overs, 13 balls more than they managed at the SCG, and lost just four wickets. It wasn't a victory and it didn't feel like one either, but once again, Australia knew that they were in for a proper contest. How often can you say that in today's unipolar cricket world?