Third Test

Australia v India

Mike Coward

At Melbourne, December 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 2003. Australia won by nine wickets. Toss: India.

Forfeiting a series lead from such an imposing first-day position will long haunt Ganguly and his minions. Opportunities to dictate to world cricket's superpower at the MCG come rarely. But at 329 for four after a rollicking Boxing Day, India were poised to press home the advantage so sensationally established at Adelaide ten days earlier. The abject submission of their batting on the second morning - the last six fell for 16 runs to a mostly unfamiliar attack - was an affront to Sehwag, who had given them a stunning start, and it cleared the way for a spectacular rally by the Australians.

Elite Indian batsmen have often been noted for their quiet demeanour and inscrutability, but Sehwag is representative of a new breed who boast a self-assuredness, even cockiness. A daring opener, he has a simple philosophy and an uncomplicated style, playing by instinct and not by the book.

For five hours and 12 minutes he enthralled a first-day crowd of 62,613 - a record for India in Australia - his bold strokeplay bringing 25 fours and five sixes. He was as devastating on the drive and through the covers as he was through mid-wicket and the gully. Sehwag just missed a maiden Test double-hundred but his score of 195 was the highest by an Indian at the MCG, which was celebrating its 150th birthday with a spectacular $A430m makeover in advance of the Commonwealth Games in 2006.

While he could have been run out on five and should have been caught by Katich at 66, this was an innings of both brilliance and raw courage. Twice, Sehwag was hit on the helmet by Lee; each time, he barely flinched. In summers past, Indian openers would have wilted against such an attack on the body.

Such was Sehwag's authority he brought out the best in the emerging and capable Chopra. Their stand of 141 was India's first century opening partnership outside the subcontinent for nearly ten years. Chopra, playing just his fifth Test after being summoned against New Zealand in October, also showed he possessed courage to complement his poise. Following his departure, the redoubtable Dravid enabled Sehwag to advance the score to a startling 278 for one. India seemed destined for a score that would unsettle - even intimidate - the Australians, who had to cope with the combined pressures of a critical Test and the ongoing, exhausting Waugh valedictories.

India collapsed next morning, however, and Ponting, riding high after his glorious 242 in Adelaide, and Hayden moved swiftly to avert embarrassment. They pooled their formidable resources and added 234 for the second wicket before Hayden was lbw to the indefatigable Kumble for 136. Ponting completed his 20th Test century two overs later and, although he elicited only modest support from that point, he was in such sublime form that he reached 257, his third double. Before Adelaide, he had made 206 at Port-of-Spain in April; Don Bradman, in England in 1930, is the only other batsman to have scored three Test double-hundreds in a calendar year. With an unforgettable array of cuts, drives and thrilling trademark pulls and clips ahead of square, Ponting struck 25 fours (plus one all-run) in 458 balls, and batted for ten minutes shy of ten hours. He took the match away from India, much as Dravid and Laxman stole the Second Test from Australia.

Ponting rarely lapsed in concentration, even when the excitement surrounding Waugh's farewell reached fever pitch. On the third morning, the nation that halts for a horse race was stopped in its tracks when Waugh was struck above the left elbow by a short delivery from the enigmatic Agarkar. For one unsettling moment, as Waugh admitted later, he feared his distinguished career was to end in Melbourne and not his beloved Sydney the following week. He left the ground for treatment but, hard as nails, returned after lunch to assist Ponting in advancing the total beyond 500. Characteristically, he made light of the pain and received three standing ovations from a crowd of 33,256 - many there expressly to pay him tribute.

Any lingering doubts as to the quality of India's cricket under duress were dispelled on the fourth day, although it must be said the batting after plucky Patel at No. 7 was lily-livered and inept. The tail's capitulation again undermined the splendid work of Dravid, who batted five and a half hours for 92, and Ganguly, who selflessly promoted himself ahead of Tendulkar in the closing overs of the third day, following the master's first-ball duck in the first innings. Demonstrably leading from the front, Ganguly showed his mettle by returning to the fray after receiving a nasty blow to the head from Williams, and compiling a neat 73. To the unrestrained delight of the entire Indian contingent, Tendulkar played with a quiet effectiveness for 44, suggesting better days might not be far away.

While the batsmen won the rave reviews, Kumble and MacGill, leg-spinners of vastly different styles, enjoyed a good deal of success. Though the Indians regretted risking their injured premier pace bowler Zaheer Khan, the Australians had reason to be pleased with the spirited showing of left-armer Bracken and the tearaway Williams. But Ponting had the last word; when he swept the winning four to fine leg, he had 1,503 Test runs for the calendar year, a total exceeded only by Viv Richards and Sunil Gavaskar.

Man of the Match: R. T. Ponting. Attendance: 179,662.

© John Wisden & Co