Sparring teams set up riveting finish
On the penultimate day of the series the contest between India and Australia came alive like never before in the preceding weeks. Today's play was blockbuster action compared to Saturday's Chinese water torture. It was riveting to watch because, for the first time in the series, the match swung like a pendulum in the day. India and Australia won a session each and the hosts were perilously close to frittering away their tremendous advantage until the pressure ebbed because of Australia's slow over-rate.
Each time India seemed to have done enough in this Test to ensure ownership of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy they were jolted into realising that Australia, no matter how weak they appear, will not be comprehensively beaten by anything less than a ruthless performance. India produced that sort of performance in Mohali. They haven't managed it anywhere else.
In slipping from 422 for 5 to 441 all out in the first innings, India failed to post a score that would shut Austalia out of the game, like they had done in Delhi. Australia ambushed their way back into the match by scoring 189 for 2 at nearly four an over. It took a whole day of disciplined lines and defensive fields to retrieve the situation and gain an 86-run lead.
India's openers built on that advantage during today's morning session and while Sehwag was batting, with M Vijay giving him sensible support, the lead extended rapidly. It didn't matter a jot that Ricky Ponting had a 7-2 offside field for Mitchell Johnson and 6-3 for Brett Lee. When the ball was wide - although not as wide as India's line - Sehwag went after it, blazing drives and cuts through the cover-point region. He was beaten by Johnson several times by the angle across off stump but it did not change his approach.
Sehwag had treated Jason Krejza with disdain in the first innings but had eventually fallen to the offspinner. Anyone else might have batted with a bit more regard, but not Sehwag. He continued to smash Krejza down the ground and towards the leg-side boundaries. A short while after lunch, India had a lead of 202 with ten wickets intact. Surely the series was theirs.
Not quite. The ball had begun to reverse a little and Shane Watson used the movement to trap Vijay lbw. But it was hardly a significant opening for Vijay was a debutant who had perhaps exceeded expectations by sharing opening stands of 98 and 116. And the middle-order trio of Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly averaged over 50 each in the series and had not failed collectively since the first innings in Bangalore.
The link between the openers and the middle order, however, has been India's biggest problem. Rahul Dravid's failure has punctured the momentum provided by the openers because the first wicket has often been followed quickly by the second. He failed again. India's control over the situation dissipated with Sehwag's departure for 92. The scenario was remarkably similar to the first innings when India lost three quick wickets after the openers had added 98. Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly had consolidated the innings on that occasion.
Today, however, the middle order went into ultra-defensive mode. The boundaries became hard to find and even singles were few and far between. Dravid had scored 3 off 18 balls, Tendulkar managed 12 off 55 and Laxman 4 off 34. The passage of play after Sehwag's dismissal began to resemble the Cape Town crawl when Tendulkar and Dravid stagnated against Paul Harris in the third innings. The pressure mounted slowly but steadily, India's run-rate dived, Australia's fielders inched closer to the bat.
The Sunday crowd - the largest of small crowds so far - waited for the batsmen to ride out the phase but instead they were shocked into silence. Laxman got a ripping offbreak from Krejza which took the edge on to leg stump; Sourav Ganguly, perhaps overwhelmed by it being his last innings, closed the face too early and offered Krejza a return catch.
Tendulkar's dismissal summed up the chaos the innings was in. He had got off the mark with a terrific cover drive off Watson and had scored 6 off his first nine balls. His next six runs took 46. In the last over before tea, he pushed towards cover-point and sprinted for an impossible single. Tendulkar's run-out was Australia's sixth wicket in the session. They had conceded only 68 runs and only 18 in the last hour. They weren't bowling two feet outside off stump with an 8-1 field either.
The severity of India's predicament was eased after tea, however, when Australia had to bowl Krejza from one end and a part-time slow bowler from the other to make up for a tardy over-rate. The pressure-bubble burst and Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh found scoring simpler. India were without direction at 166 for 6 - 252 ahead - but slowly began to regain the advantage.
Australia begin the final day needing 369 to win, 203 more than what they scored against India's restrictive fields on Saturday. India have the advantage and a good reason to deploy an 8-1 field again. They will be naïve, however, to expect a similar approach from Australia. The final day of the series holds tremendous promise for a thrilling finish to the series.