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October 30, 2008
VVS Laxman tormented Australia with his second Test double-century and Gautam Gambhir registered his first as India batted themselves into an almost unconquerable position in the third Test. On the second successive day of complete Indian domination, Australia's greatest achievement was simply getting to stumps without losing a wicket.
But Matthew Hayden and Simon Katich were given a preview of the challenge that awaits them as the legspinners Amit Mishra and Anil Kumble spun a few deliveries viciously out of the footmarks that Australia's bowlers had created over nearly 12 hours in the field. The openers batted out 15 overs after Kumble delayed his declaration to allow Laxman to reach 200.
As soon as the milestone came with a lofted on-drive off Michael Clarke, India's batsmen were called in. They had done their job. If the first day did not consign Australia to an unwinnable position, the second day must surely have managed it. Gambhir and Laxman compiled a mammoth 278-run partnership that left Australia tired, frustrated and wicketless for nearly three sessions. In spite of Gambhir's achievement at his home ground, the day belonged to Laxman.
His list of achievements was impressive: he went past 2000 Test runs against Australia; he recorded his sixth Test century against them; and he turned it into his second highest Test score, behind his 2000-01 effort of 281 at Eden Gardens, an innings that still gives a few Australians sleepless nights. If ever there was proof of his love of this opposition it's his list of top Test innings - his best four are all against Australia.
Laxman began the day in ominous touch and pulled brilliantly when Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson dropped short. He stalled for a while on 99 before driving Cameron White comfortably through cover for four and went on to cause problems for all the bowlers. The Australians helped him by regularly straying onto his pads and it was like handing Cookie Monster control of the Arnott's factory.
At one stage Ricky Ponting even effectively relocated the slips cordon to short midwicket to handle the situation. It was reminiscent of the old Test Match board game where children carefully place their little plastic fielders in unorthodox positions to deal with the predictability of the restrictive batting mechanism.
Ponting lined up his three catching men - a misnomer as they weren't offered any catches - on the leg-side but Laxman still found the spaces with casual flicks and well-timed drives. And unlike the Test Match batsman there is nothing restrictive about Laxman's technique, so he also took the opportunity to glide easy runs through the vacant slip region.
He left some of his most flabbergasting shots until late in the day. Can anyone truly explain how he turned a Johnson delivery that was angled across him and was well outside off stump into an on-drive for four? And yet he did it so effortlessly that viewers could not help but assume that was the most logical stroke for that delivery.
In Laxman's company, Gambhir was as anonymous as one can be in reaching 200. He played some impressive shots of his own; he clubbed White contemptuously through midwicket and when things became so desperate for Australia that Ricky Ponting bowled for the first time since 2005-06, Gambhir pulled his slow-medium bouncer easily over the infield for four.
When Gambhir got his double-century with a clip off his hips from Lee, his celebrations were relatively muted. There was a raise of the bat and a handshake from a smiling and admiring Lee, but Gambhir was clearly exhausted. The proof came when he wearily played on to Shane Watson on 206. It was Australia's first success since Sachin Tendulkar departed just before tea on the first day.
By the time Gambhir went, India were 435 for 4. It was all rather academic after that. Laxman kept scoring, the lower order gave him impressive support and Australia kept toiling without much hope of achieving anything of real value. But a few things were confirmed in the period that followed, namely that Katich should bowl more often, Johnson is a tireless worker and Brad Haddin is struggling with such long and hot days behind the stumps.
It has been a tough tour for Haddin, who has had to deal with unfamiliar pace and bounce while trying to maintain his concentration. His worst moment came when Laxman, on 134, got a thick edge off Watson. The ball flew between the wicketkeeper and first slip but it was so close to Haddin that he would not have needed to dive; as it was, he didn't even move.
Haddin did grasp a second, almost identical chance soon after to remove Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who had been briefly entertaining in smashing 27. The reflexes of Katich were sharper. Dhoni pulled violently back at head height towards the bowler Katich, who somehow got his left hand to the ball and simultaneously dropped an almost impossible chance while saving the umpire Aleem Dar from losing a few teeth.
Had Katich pinched the chance it would have been two wickets in two overs after he removed Sourav Ganguly for 5. It was strange that Ponting had not asked Katich, a left-arm wrist-spinner, to bowl to Ganguly earlier in the series. The similarly-styled Brad Hogg removed Ganguly four times in last season's Tests and Katich duly continued the trend, drawing Ganguly into a drive to Ponting at cover.
Katich, White, Clarke and Ponting all bowled spells that helped relieve the fast men, who couldn't find much movement and were often given depressingly defensive fields. But Johnson showed heart and was still firing in short and fast stuff late in the day. He was rewarded with an lbw decision against Kumble (45) and finished with 3 for 142.
The very fact that Johnson's figures were considered reasonable highlighted just how much India dominated the first two days. The first belonged to Gambhir, the second to Laxman - for Australia to rescue the match, the third day must be emphatically claimed by one of their top six.