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India Series Victory in Sight

Report by Jon Cocks 25/10/04

Halfway through the long-awaited 'Final Frontier' series, in which Australia is attempting to win its first Test series in India since 1969, the Baggygreens have a 1-0 lead due to combination of relentless, determined cricket, a bit of luck with the weather and a modification of the all-out attack that was a feature of the Australian game under Steve Waugh's captaincy.

Patience (including a more measured approach to batting and a resultant lower scoring rate), the return of the nightwatchman and the deployment of slightly more defensive fields on a flat pitch have characterised the Australian approach so far in a tense, absorbing battle, in which the Indian spinners have shown the way with the ball, but the Australian batting has done enough to keep its nose ahead overall.

Australia won the toss and elected to bat in the First Test at Bangalore, an event that took on significance on a pitch described by Aussie coach Buchanan as 'terrible', but which ultimately held together for the five days. The cracks in the ultra-dry surface inspired no confidence that fluid strokeplay could ensue. 70 runs in the first session underscored that feeling. Neither opening batsman could cut loose and Hayden perished trying to do just that, while Langer grafted for his runs.

That Clarke (76 n.o.), Katich (81) and Gilchrist (35 n.o.) were able to re-assert Australian authority with the bat in the final session (1-139) was attributable at least in part to Indian fatigue, after the golden period in the middle of the day when they grabbed three for not many. Irfan Pathan’s screaming yorker to remove Langer was a great delivery on a slow pitch to a well-set batsman, while Kumble (24-2-86-3) was relentless on his home ground, enjoying the thrill of collecting his 400th Test scalp when he got one through Simon Katich.

Langer (52) battled hard, while Hayden (26) paid the penalty for trying to upend the Indian attack, as Lehmann (17) did later, while Martyn (3) never got started. Lehmann sought to do what he does best – knock the bowlers off their line. However, he was never settled and got out to a shot that he would not enjoy seeing on replay.

Katich's 81 held the Australian innings together. His timely elevation to Number three was the success story of the day, an opener to the series that more than justifies its billing as the most-anticipated series of 2004. At tea, the score was 4-177 and the match was tilted India’s way, but the resolve of Katich and flair of Clarke tilted it back Australia’s way by stumps.

139 runs came in the final session for the loss of Katich. Gilchrist’s 34-ball cameo prompted the surge, but Clarke hit four sixes in a memorable debut. He used his feet well and seemed calm and assured despite his admitted nerves in the leadup to the Test. The first day gave us pulsating Test cricket at 3.5 runs an over on a slow pitch, with the match poised delicately.

The first big question on Day Two would concern how near 450 Clarke and Gilchrist could take Australia, given coach Buchanan’s stated aim of batting for at least 130 overs. Amazingly, the Australian innings ended on the last ball of the 130th over, with Australia a healthy 474, despite losing 5-51 in a late collapse sparked by Harbhajan (41-7-146-5).

If Michael Clarke’s sensational debut 151 (248 balls, 18 fours, four sixes) was the engine room of Australia’s second day domination, then Adam Gilchrist’s ruthless 104 (109 balls, 13 fours, three sixes) was the turbo-charger, while Glenn McGrath’s early double strike in India’s first dig and vintage form (15-4-37-3) burnt India off down the straight and saw them in pit lane with serious mechanical problems.

Precariously poised on 6-150 at the close, Indian hopes of avoiding follow-on ignominy hinged upon the late order conjuring another 124 runs, a feat not all that likely, given the switched on Australian bowling and fielding. Only Ganguly (45), Sehwag (39) and Laxman (31) were able to offer a modicum of resistance, after India had slumped suddenly to 2-4 after three overs.

The hosts might have felt some cause for optimism, given Harbhajan’s sensational return catch to dismiss Gilchrist on the stroke of lunch. The captain and the debutante had systematically milked India’s bowlers all morning, to the extent that anything up to 600 looked on, but when the Turbanator produced some belated form, India must have gained heart. The Australian tail looked vulnerable to the finger spinner on the dustbowl, but quick wickets are quick wickets.

Unfortunately, when Sehwag and Chopra came out, quick wickets remained the theme. Ganguly and Sehwag steadied things, but no one could capitalise on a start. Dravid being bowled through the gate for a five-ball duck by a rampant returning McGrath typified the misery that was India’s lot on Day Two.

Patel (18*) and Pathan (1*) were all that remained standing after the afternoon session carnage. On a day where Australia comprehensively won the first and last sessions, Indian claims on the middle session were negated by its subsequent capitulation in 44 overs to the World Champions, who hunt as a pack, especially in the field.

Where Gillespie (8-2-41-0) bowled without luck, Kasprowicz’s (7-1-21-2) steady line drew the errors that rewarded him with the wickets of Ganguly and Sehwag, just when the Indian captain and the rising star looked to be prospering from the fast medium fare on the benign, slow motion pitch. Shane Warne (14-1-46-1) showed no ill effects for a want of baked beans either. Day Two concluded with the Australian jackboot well and truly on the Indian throat in a spooky rerun of Mumbai 2001, replete with a return Gilchrist run-a-ball ton.

Would Gilchrist enforce the follow-on? As India trailed by 324 with just four wickets in hand, the question seemed reasonable at the start of the third morning, but after ninety minutes of steely resistance from Patel (46) and Pathan (31) that realised just 37, the concept of bowling to elite batsmen on that benign third day deck did not inspire confidence.

At last Warne (28-4-78-2) got one past the edge of the unusually mature youngster Pathan’s bat for Gilchrist to snap him up, but the seasoned Kumble (26) simply took over being the annoying foil to the resolute young keeper. The morning session must have all but convinced Gilchrist that to bat again would be by far the more sensible notion.

It wasn’t until Gillespie (16.3-3-63-2) rattled Patel’s woodwork after lunch that Indian resistance was broken, although numbers nine, ten and eleven scrambled another nineteen runs, until McGrath (25-8-55-4) removed Harbhajan (8). Kasprowicz (20-4-43-2) bowled well on Day Two without luck. His full length and ability to move the ball both ways off the seam tested all batsmen.

No Indian batsman passed fifty and only two partnerships exceeded the half century. That in a nutshell was the difference between the teams at the halfway point, but the stoic performance of the Indian lower order to add 86 to the overnight total was enough for Gilchrist to decide to put the match out of India’s reach.

Losing Langer to the fourth ball of the second innings before a run was added to the lead set a few hearts fluttering, but Katich (39) and Hayden (30) saw the visitors to tea without further loss, although the Kat managed a couple of ‘drives’ to third man. The runrate bounded out to 4.5, but being bold can be its own reward and the Australians progressed steadily after tea, with both batsmen particularly severe on Zaheer Khan (7-1-27-0).

Pathan (9-2-28-1) stuck to his task, however, and Harbhajan (15-2-43-1) found turn and bounce, so that Australia did not have it all its own way, the runrate being pegged back to 3.5 by drinks. The off spinner’s confidence up, he fielded well at point and threw down Hayden’s stumps, catching him out of his ground chancing a quick single and drawing the red light from the third umpire.

Kumble (11-2-26-1) joined Harbhajan at the crease and the all-spin attack gradually slowed the runs to a trickle, despite Martyn (29*) helping himself to a couple of boundaries early in Kumble’s spell. Katich’s attempt at a big shot from Kumble merely flicked a thick edge and Dravid swallowed it at first slip. Lehmann (14) emerged, slapped a full toss to the rope and rotated the strike, but edged Harbhajan into his pad to Chopra at short leg and Australia - seeking to keep the runrate flowing - had slipped to 4-104.

Clarke (11*) and Martyn played out time in sedate fashion after that setback and Australia went in at 4-127, leading by 355 with six wickets in hand and with two days to play. At stumps on Day Three, both teams could still win, but only the serious ‘glass-half-full- types could back the hosts. Despite being four wickets down, Australia could go into Day Four, knowing that it had edged Day Three overall, despite the hosts’ resistance in the morning with the bat and persistence in the field during the afternoon.

No one could doubt Indian persistence with the ball on the morning of Day Four, but it was all for nought, as India ended Day Four needing 352 for victory with just four wickets left. Harbhajan Singh (30.1-5-78-6) bowled a tidy off stump line to keep the Australian middle and late order somewhat in check, although Warne (31*) got away with some audacious blows. Kumble (23-4-64-2) toiled well in support, but not always in tandem, as Indian spin bowling wisdom traditionally upholds.

Ganguly rotated the spinners with the seamers, slowing the Australian runrate. Pathan (12-2-38-1) looked dangerous at times, while Zaheer Khan (13-1-45-0) struggled, but Australia pushed on to 228 and an overall lead of 456.Indian commentators said that Australia had more than enough at lunch, but Gilchrist was not allowing the hosts a sniff, batting on after lunch until the last wicket fell.

The grinding pressure of the huge deficit told on the Indians as much as anything and the stumps score of 6 -105 from 49 overs reflected it. McGrath (12-8-9-2) was even more miserly and probing than usual, Gillespie (10-4-18-1) was relentless and Warne (19-4-60-2) exacting. No Indian batsman – other than Dravid (47 n.o.) – had an answer.

It remained for Australia merely to mop up four wickets on Day Five, but what should have been a routine mop-up operation dragged on into the second session, due to spirited resistance from tailenders Pathan (55, his maiden Test half century), Harbhajan (42) and Zaheer (22*). Warne (32-8-115-2) bowled all but one over in the morning session to finish wicketless in his chase for the two wickets to pass Muralitharan as the leading Test wicket taker.

Despite Kasprowicz (14-7-23-2) trapping danger man Dravid (60) in front with a sharp off cutter and removing the off stump of Kumble (2) shortly afterwards, Gilchrist played into India’s hands with some unimaginative captaincy in allowing Warne to bowl unchanged, as Warne’s apparent record-breaking anxiety translated into an uninspired bowling performance that the Indian tail found easier to score from as the morning progressed on a pitch that continued to hold together and play slowly.

In the end, Gilchrist had to take the new ball shortly after lunch. McGrath (20-10-39-2) had his figures soured by some insolent blows by Harbhajan, but Gillespie (14.4-4-33-3) highlighted the captain’s folly in not tossing him the ball before lunch at all by being too good for Pathan and then Harbhajan, who added 89 for India’s ninth wicket and gave them confidence for the second Test, despite going into it a Test down.

Australia won the First test at Bangalore by the convincing margin of 217 runs, but the margin might have been as much as a hundred more, if the captain had not taken his foot of the accelerator. India would have gained some heart from the spirited performance of its tail and the knowledge that the Australian tail is not confident against the finger spin of Harbhajan. Ultimately, the difference between the sides lay in the first innings batting of Australia, with the partnerships played by Katich, Clarke (man of the match in a memorable debut) and Gilchrist.

At lunch on Day One in the Second Test at Chennai, with Australia having won the toss and electing to bat, a score of 0-111 – apart from having Umpire Shepherd hopping on one foot for forty minutes – might have been cause for considerable Australian optimism. When Hayden (58) and Langer (71) both got out to Harbhajan (29-2-90-2) with the score on 136, supporters could have been forgiven for thinking that this was a temporary aberration and that normal service would be resumed soon.

Instead, Australia lost another eight wickets for only another 99 runs, with Katich (36*) left high and dry, no one else able to reach double figures, destroyer Anil Kumble (17.3-4-48-7) building on his excellent First Test performance. No batsman had the answer to his accurate line and unpredictable bounce, most of his victims caught close to the wicket. He turned the test on his head, showing once again how an inspired spell of slow bowling on the subcontinent can arrest one side’s momentum and give the other the front running, all within one session.

Warne (29-3-95-3) was able to move level with Muralitharan's world Test wickets record by stumps on Day One, picking up Yuvraj Singh (8), caught by Gilchrist, but India was able to move into day two at 1-29 and push towards a first innings lead on Day Two, finishing on 6-291, a lead of 56. Virender Sehwag (155) enjoyed some luck, several lofted shots passing close to Australian fieldsmen, but his alternately bold and patient century gave India the solid advantage, despite Gillespie (27-7-55-2) removing Ganguly (9) and the dangerous Laxman (4) and Kasprowicz (19-4-45-1) reversing one through Dravid (26) to disturb his woodwork.

Warne captured the Test wickets record outright in Day Two, but Sehwag’s ton was more important in the context of the match and India went in with the significant advantage and favouritism to level the series. Nightwatchman Pathan (14) absorbed more than an hour’s worth of bowling before Warne removed him. Sehwag was the sixth wicket to fall, just two runs behind Australia – Warne’s 533rd Test wicket - but Kaif (34*) and Patel (26*) were the ones to confirm India’s advantage, with an unbroken stand of 58. India managed 262 from 90 overs on Day Two, gaining the upper hand, but not without some wobbles in the form of near misses from the bat and in the field.

Day Three saw more classic Test match fluctuation, with India consolidating through Kaif (64) and Patel (53), Australia fighting back with the ball – with Warne (42.3-5-125-6) defying the sub-continental bogey – and the bat, until Kumble (15-1-53-3) reasserted Indian home town authority, removing Langer (19), Hayden (39) and most importantly Gilchrist (49) just before stumps.

Chennai was the venue for the classic two-wicket victory to India in 2001, which saw the home team secure the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. It is a venue in Southern India in which the word 'Test' assumes extra physical demands, such is the enervating heat and humidity. Day Three of this Test was such a day. India’s first innings lead of 141 was carved out of some typically relentless Australian bowling and fielding, so much so that Kaif could not continue after lunch, owing to severe cramps brought upon his lean frame by the demands of withstanding Australia in the heat of the Chennai kitchen.

His ultimate demise came when he emerged at the fall of the ninth wicket, played a ball to fine leg, forgot he had a runner, left his crease, fell, was unable due to cramp to regain his ground and was run out. Given that he had overseen his team’s valuable first innings lead, such a comedy of errors might be forgiven, although Langer and Hayden began the second innings reply like men driven to punish just such an error. In a game where millimetres can decide the issue, Kaif’s cramp could be seen to be costly, but the late wicket of acting captain Gilchrist, who promoted himself to Number Three, appeared to offer recompense for any Indian conception that its first innings had been curtailed prematurely.

After three days, Australia went in at an effective 4-9, with Martyn (19*) and nightwatchman Gillespie (0*) looking to add as many as possible, before Lehmann and Clarke came to the crease. India was back in the driver’s seat with six sessions left, but Australia retained the potential to push the lead out to 200 or so, a target that would become increasingly difficult on a pitch from which clouds of dust worthy of a Mongol army on the march emerged, as groundsmen swept the square clean with their straw brooms at the close of play. Such a match scenario might go to the wire on day Five, if the 2001 epic were to be any guide, or last a mere hour on Day Four.

If Damien Martyn (104) was the undoubted Australian hero of Day Four, then Jason Gillespie (26) was his understudy in an absorbing day’s play, when no wickets fell until the above two players were dismissed in rapid succession by Harbhajan (47.5-12-110-3) just before tea.

Another brace – Lehmann (31) and Warne (0) – fell to Kumble (46-8-130-6) an hour before stumps, and yet another brace – Kasprowicz (5) and McGrath (2) – going at the death. The pitch remained dusty and slow, with wickets hard to come by as batsmen alternately played right back and watch the spinners onto the bat, or used the crease in coming forward to blunt spin or punish loose deliveries.

Test cricket was a winner on this day. Just sixty runs were added between lunch and tea, but it was as enthralling as any 4.5 runs per over rampage on a true pitch. Martyn and Gillespie combined superbly to dig Australia out of its Day Three hole, turning 4-9 (nett) into a lead of 143 by the time Martyn edged the off spinner to Dravid at slip.

In contrast, Lehmann and Clarke (39*) added 62 in 17 overs after tea, as Australia sought to apply some runs pressure, although the flow slowed to a trickle after Lehmann left after top-edging a Kumble long hop and Warne followed two balls later, just as India was beginning to look down the barrel of a serious deficit on the last day.

While numbers five and six were out there batting at seven and eight, anything seemed possible. The innings became a dire arm wrestle for survival with Glenn McGrath seeking to keep his Test runs tally above that of his wickets, but when he succumbed to Harbhajan, Australia was all out for 369, setting India 229 from a full day plus four overs.

Australia’s second innings began very much to resemble the Indian first innings in number of runs scored and runs per over, with a centurion backed by several useful contributions over 25. The Indian spinners bowled two thirds of the overs, but Zaheer (22-6-36-1) weighed in with some probing fast medium that tested all batsmen.

In three overs before stumps, Sehwag smacked three fours from McGrath to reduce the Indian requirement to 210 from a full day’s play on a dusty pitch that continued to bear up, while showing signs of wear. This was very similar to the requirement on Day Five in Adelaide the previous December, but on a very different pitch and from a potentially far more potent attack.

Both teams would have every chance of victory, except that torrential rains in Chennai doused all chance of play on the final day, ending proceedings not with a bang, but whimper. Anil Kumble, with thirteen wickets, was Man of the Match.

At half time in the 'Final Frontier', Australia needs one more victory to complete the set of overseas wins and to get the prize that eluded Steve Waugh. The absences of Ricky Ponting and - perhaps even more significantly, Sachin Tendulkar - have been felt by both teams. Either could be the key to which team ultimately carries off the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

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