Uncharacteristic Tendulkar and Laxman save the day
In time, the innings played by Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman today will be forgotten among their more glamorous conquests. It shouldn't be so; their contributions, though humble in purely numerical terms, are immense when seen in context - they helped India save the Test - and will rank among their more significant.
Tendulkar is the elephant in the fourth-innings room. His repeated failures in the final leg of a Test have forced admirers to look towards Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag for a saviour. He averages 33.60 in the final innings with three half-centuries. His hundreds are so rare that they are easily recalled: Old Trafford 1990, Chennai 1999.
Tendulkar had started the tour of Sri Lanka needing 172 runs to break Brian Lara's record but after six innings he was still 77 short. He wasn't clueless against Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan, like some of his team-mates, for he often began confidently only to get out in unorthodox ways or to soft shots. It was the same in the first innings in Bangalore, when a spooned drive to short cover off a slower ball brought about his dismissal.
The situation when he walked out this morning hinted at India's bugbear: a calamitous final-day collapse. Sehwag and Dravid had been dismissed and 74.3 overs remained. Tendulkar received his routine rousing welcome from the crowd but the half-empty ground, on a day when he needed only 64 runs to become Test cricket's leading run-scorer, was perhaps a sign of the times. If this was 1998, the Chinnaswamy Stadium would have been packed, irrespective of it being a Monday.
Tendulkar did not face Stuart Clark in the first innings. When he did in the second, Clark had Haddin stand up to the stumps, a tactic he used successfully in Sydney. Tendulkar was immediately bowled on that occasion while coming forward but today he negotiated Clark primarily from his crease, using his wrists to open the face and steer the ball through point for his first boundary.
Mitchell Johnson operated with the first-innings trap in place: a slip, two men at short cover and a point waiting for the lofted drive or the outside edge. Tendulkar was able to slip right through it, square-driving his first ball from Johnson through point for four. He then fended a couple of short balls awkwardly towards leg gully but, when Ponting moved himself into that position, Tendulkar found other ways to counter that line of attack.
Apart from one ambitious appeal from Michael Clarke, the bowlers barely had a chance against him. His three-hour vigil spanned the decisive passage of play - the post-lunch session - and included partnerships with Gautam Gambhir and Laxman that virtually ensured India's safety.
The Australians don't sledge Tendulkar because they think it fires him up. Watson, though, had a go at Laxman after bowling several short balls. Laxman didn't respond but Tendulkar walked towards Watson and had a word. He was in a mood for battle.
Tendulkar's well-knit innings began to fray as the light deteriorated during the final session. He played out 11 balls on 48 and talked with umpires, presumably about the conditions. His concentration lapsed moments later and a lofted drive to cover gave the debutant Cameron White his first wicket. His contribution was immense but he had left the job of saving the Test, and the quest for the world record, incomplete.
Until then Laxman had batted in Tendulkar's shadow but now he was critical to India's chances. He had found scoring opportunities difficult against a strong leg-side field in the first innings. They remained hard to come by in the second for Ponting had two men at short midwicket, a leg gully, a silly mid-on, a conventional mid-on, and a square leg at various times but patience underlined Laxman's approach.
He wore down the fast bowlers with terrific defence and, once the fading light ensured only the spinners could operate, Laxman was at ease. Four men hovered around the bat - leg slip, first slip, silly point and short leg - for Clarke and White but Laxman's supple wrists and swift footwork nullified the threat.
Between them, Tendulkar and Laxman scored only 91 runs but they blunted Australia's attack for 268 balls and spent nearly six hours at the crease. Their gritty, unfashionably restrained efforts are the reason why the series is still level.