Cool Clarke guides Australia towards safety
A fighting century from Michael Clarke gave Australia a strong chance of heading into the final Test with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy still theirs to defend as a draw appeared likely in Delhi. Clarke's 112, his eighth Test hundred, guided Australia to within 36 runs of India's enormous 613 and completed a valiant group response from a side that had been all but batted out of the game within two days.
India's second innings began poorly when an exhausted Virender Sehwag, who had bowled 40 overs and collected five wickets, played on to Brett Lee for 16. The loss of the night-watchman Ishant Sharma, who bunted a Stuart Clark bouncer to the close-in off-side fielder, meant Australia finished the day with the momentum as India closed at 43 for 2.
There were faint echoes of the Adelaide Test of 2006-07, when England went to stumps on the fourth day at 59 for 1, were bundled out by tea and watched Australia chase down 168. But if such echoes existed in Ricky Ponting's head they must have been drowned out by the repeated "I'm retired" messages that have come from the Adelaide game-turner Shane Warne.
And without Warne in Australia's armoury, it's hard to see how they can manufacture a final-day victory. India, with the very act of sending out a night-watchman when they had a 65-run lead and nine wickets in hand, gave a strong suggestion that they are in no hurry to set Australia a target.
And so ended a drifting sort of day - one that, unfortunately for India, saw the game drift out of their grasp. Or more specifically, out of Ishant's grasp. There are moments that change matches and it was easy to pinpoint the instant that it occurred on the fourth day at the Feroz Shah Kotla.
It came in the fourth over of the morning when Clarke drove Amit Mishra airily towards mid-off. For a shorter man it might have been a tough chance; for Ishant it was a regulation opportunity and it slipped through the hands that reached only slightly above his head. Clarke was on 21 at the time; he went on to add another 91.
Occasional wickets fell at the other end but, as Clarke became more resolute, Indian heads started to sink and minds began to wander. Mishra was below his best and lacked any real zip. Too often he dropped short and was duly dispatched and he also spent a while bowling around the wicket into the footmarks outside Clarke's leg-stump - a tactic that pleased Clarke, who simply kicked most of the balls away.
Ishant was also less than threatening on a day he would rather forget. He sprayed a few too many deliveries down leg side and then alternated to off side. Kumble toiled valiantly with 11 stitches in his left hand and was unlucky not to pick up a couple of tight lbw decisions but for the second day running Sehwag was by far the most dangerous bowler.
He collected Shane Watson and Cameron White and finished with his first five-wicket haul - not just in Test cricket but in 124 first-class appearances. And he could have had Clarke out in the 90s - twice. VVS Laxman's mind must have been on his 34th birthday celebrations when Clarke top-edged an attempted sweep to midwicket, where the ball bounced out of Laxman's hands like they were a trampoline. When Mishra grassed Clarke at deep midwicket in Sehwag's next over it was clear this was Clarke's day.
In fairness, he had done the hard work. It was a calm and measured innings from Clarke, whose maturity has lifted since he was handed the vice-captaincy. He reached his milestone from 219 deliveries with the final ball before tea, when he went back and cut Sehwag forward of point for two. He fell soon after the break for 112, when he lofted Mishra into the outfield as Australia tried to lift their rate, but his job was well and truly done.
Clarke used his feet superbly to the spinners and was not afraid to drive over the infield when it was safe. When the wearying bowlers erred, he looked for value, and a pulled six over midwicket when Mishra dropped short was a perfectly sensible stroke. But the majority of Clarke's runs were just that - run - as he coolly guided balls through gaps and pushed Australia past the follow-on mark and towards safety.
He had excellent support from White, who contributed 44 in a 106-run partnership and for the first time looked genuinely comfortable batting at Test level. That was not altogether unexpected; White averages more than 40 in first-class cricket and typically comes in at No. 5 for Victoria.
White watched the ball closely, picked wrong'uns and legbreaks and drove confidently when the spinners overpitched. There were brief moments of brutality and a lofted six over long-on off Kumble to bring up Australia's 500 was reminiscent of the White who has pillaged domestic attacks in the shorter formats.
Eventually White succumbed and under-edged an attempted sweep on to his stumps off Sehwag. But he had done his job. All of Australia's batsmen had done a job. The top five each passed fifty, Watson contributed 36 before he lost his leg stump to a Sehwag offbreak, and even Brad Haddin did enough in his 17 to help ease the danger of a lower-order collapse.
When Haddin was stumped he became Kumble's first Test wicket in nearly three months and almost 85 overs. There was a certain steeliness about Kumble, whose hand problem was so severe it needed 11 stitches. Had he dropped his head it would have been understandable but he didn't, and at times he was visibly annoyed with the lethargic fielding from his team-mates.
He returned to finish the Australians off with a courageous catch off his own bowling when Mitchell Johnson skied one between mid-on and mid-off. But despite Kumble's resilience, the match had all but slipped away. He can hope for a final-day miracle but in all likelihood he will have to wait for Nagpur next week to potentially get his hands on the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo