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Hanging in the balance

Kunal Pradhan

Posted: Nov 01, 2008 at 0022 hrs IST

: Four fielders surrounding the bat, a batsman lunging forward to meet a flighted delivery three feet outside the crease, a brush of glove, a hint of pad, an audible gasp from a diving fielder, an “ooh” from the crowd, and a round of muffled applause.

All the elements that make Test cricket a wonderful game of attrition, patience, skill, luck and intrigue, were on display at the Ferozeshah Kotla on Friday as the third Test hung precariously between a fighting draw for the visiting Australians and an intricate victory for the hosts.

On a flat track that made it easy for batsmen to get their eye in, but still offered enough abnormality to keep local hopes alive, the frontline Aussie batsmen combined good fortune with steely resolve to finish the day on a healthy 338 for four in reply to India’s first innings 613.

Still 275 behind, Australia will be well aware of how half a session of mayhem could dent their chances of staying alive till Nagpur, and the Indians, encouraged by the way some of Amit Mishra’s deliveries were spinning across the right-handers, will know they mustn’t give up hope despite the digits on the scoreboard.

Chances, and bees

When a team score 288 runs for four wickets over the course of a day, it’s usually safe to assume the day belonged to them. But as the shadows grew longer and then disappeared, leaving the pristine contours of the Kotla battle-scarred, the Aussie domination on Day Three carried a rider. All the batsmen, right from Matthew Hayden to Michael Clarke had lived dangerously — an edge falling short, a nick going through the cordon, a delivery missing off-stump by a whisker.

To their great credit, they managed to hang on despite giving the chances, and each of the top-four batsmen went on to make fifties even if none of them could convert their knocks into the three-figure mark that Test cricket holds so sacred.

What stood out, right from Simon Katich and Hayden in the morning, was that the batters didn’t attempt to curb their natural game. Being too defensive in a match where the best result can only be a draw is a mistake too many top-line teams have made in the past. The Indians did it against Pakistan in Bangalore in 2005 and again in Cape Town against South Africa in 2007, and paid the price on both occasions.

With Hayden driving fluently and Katich expertly cutting behind square, the first session belonged to Australia, and to a swarm of bees that forced 14 of the 15 people on the field — including the two umpires and excluding Ishant Sharma at third-man — to lie flat on the ground for what seemed like an eternity.

Mishra finally got Katich with a classical leg-spinners’ dismissal, luring him forward and knocking out his middle-stump with a ball that darted off the footmarks and went through the gap between bat and pad.

Kumble injury

India suffered a blow when captain Anil Kumble, frustrated with his inability to make a breakthrough from either end on his favourite ground, dived full-length at short mid-wicket in an attempt to latch on to a vicious drive from Hayden.

Kumble made two valiant tries, the second a desperate dive as the ball fell feebly beside him. In the process, he suffered a deep gash on the little finger of his left hand and had to be led away from the field, and straight to hospital for stitches, unable to bowl for the rest of the day.

Rendered one bowler short, stand-in skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni had to ask part-time off-spinner Virender Sehwag to play a leading role. And the Delhi player, whose dream of finally scoring a Test century at the Kotla was dashed early in the first innings, responded to the call with alacrity.

Beating the bat consistently, Sehwag’s flight and loop got more pronounced as he grew in confidence. The 30-year-old, with just 24 wickets before this match from 62 Tests, trapped Hayden lbw with a delivery that straightened after pitching.

Then, in the final session, he bowled Ricky Ponting through the gate in a dismissal that was almost a mirror image of how Katich had been dismissed. And finally, just four overs before close, he looked like a pedigreed offie as he bowled Michael Hussey with a delivery that spun just enough to knock back his off-stump.

Having taken two late wickets on Friday, India will be eager to get on the field on Saturday morning. For Australia, two more grinding days lie ahead.

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