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|December 29, 1999||
Here's the real test
Sachin said at the start of the series that this tour would be ideal for India to change the trend of losing overseas. If there was any moment of making that happen then this is the Test, the real test.
India needs another 336 runs to pull off what will be a remarkable victory, with nine wickets standing and almost hundred overs to get them. Australia, on the other hand, have to claim just those remaining nine wickets to win the Test and the series as well.
Provided the weather gods at Melbourne don't play spoilsport, an exciting final day's play is in store on the penultimate day of this millennium.
India needs to play positively and clear doubts about their grit and ability to face the Aussie onslaught. It is not impossible, just difficult.
Australia started the day hoping to get the last Indian pair within 10-15 minutes and then bat till tea, setting the Indians a 350-plus target. Prasad edged a leg cutter from McGrath into the slip cordon where Mark Waugh snapped up his fourth catch of the innings, diving to his left, in front of Shane Warne at first slip. The Indian innings was wrapped up in only the seventh delivery of the morning for 238 runs in a mere 76.1 overs. What promised to be an exciting period of play turned into a damp squib with the weather intervening and forcing two unwanted stoppages when the Aussies took guard.
Australia's hopes of an early declaration shouldered on the exciting Michael Slater. If he could fire early, Australia could set the desired target and have more time to bowl the Indians out. But that was not to be as Slater padded up to an Agarkar delivery, which was bang on line of off-stump, offering no shot. Shepherd upheld what seemed to be a plumb decision.
In only the fourth over, Australia had lost Slater with the score at five. With that, their plans of getting off to a quick start were stalled.
Justin Langer and Greg Blewett scratched around for ten overs before Langer tried to accelerate the scoring and picked the wrong delivery to hook. Agarkar banged one, which climbed too much, and M S K Prasad held a well-judged skier on the leg-side. Langer was on his way scoring just 9 runs and the scoreboard reading a familiar 32/2.
Australia has throughout the series lost its top order with very little on the board. Both the sides have a very brittle top order, the only difference being that the Australian middle order has time and again held the innings together. Greg Blewett, for that matter, struggled all morning and opened his account after almost 30 minutes at the crease.
Steve Waugh played his cards well here and sensing that his junior brother wasn't in the best of form, promoted keeper Adam Gilchrist at number four to boost the run rate. And boost he did. Alongwith Blewett, who was struggling until then, Gilchrist took toll of the Indian pace attack and tore it apart for bowling way too short to him. The Indians tried to bounce him out by bowling short outside the off-stump, hoping he would pull the wrong ball and depart. The problem was that Sachin Tendulkar placed his fielder too deep to hold on to any chance form the exciting southpaw.
Though Gilchrist's innings was not as exciting as the one he played in the first innings, it upped the tempo for the hosts and brought some life into an otherwise boring display of unimaginative captaincy.
Sachin, for all his aggression and genius with the bat, failed to step on the gas and set defensive fields which though did pull the brakes on the scoring, failed to yield any positive signs from the tourists.
Blewett departed, pushing at one from Kumble which was turning away. He got a thick edge and Ganguly at first slip dived to his right to hold on to a good catch. Australia was 91 for 3 and the lead was 258, almost a hundred short of what skipper Waugh would have aimed at.
Gilchrist then found his luck run out as he heaved at Kumble, and Srinath took a safe catch at long on to reduce the Australians to 109/4.
The Waugh brothers got together and put together a half-century partnership.
Mark Waugh escaped to his first half-century of the series after he was let-off on two occasions - the first when he edged one from Prasad and Laxman at second slip took the ball on the bounce. Then he slashed at Kumble, and Ganguly at first slip moved to his right in anticipation only to see the ball fly past him on the left.
Mark Waugh had a rather rude welcome at the crease as he ducked to a Prasad bouncer and involuntarily directed the ball to fine leg. He, nevertheless, received a rousing reception when he reached his half-century. Not for nothing is he the second highest scorer of this decade.
Steve Waugh played his typical game and was eventually trapped in front by Agarkar, not before the two had a lot of unpleasant things to say to each other. Agarkar though had the last laugh as he had the Aussie skipper playing down the wrong line. The full-length delivery from Agarkar pitched on off and straightened to hit Steve on the back pad. The score at that stage was 167/5 and the lead a sizeable 334 runs.
Ricky Ponting was hit on the grill from a nasty lifter bowled by Srinath. An infuriated Ponting took off with the choicest of expletives for Srinath and in the presence of the umpires (the same umpires who reported Venkatesh Prasad to the match referee for doing a jig in front of Michael Slater after claiming his wicket) vented his anger. Talking of bias, this one successfully pursues perfection.
Ricky Ponting and Mark Waugh then took the lead to 375 and Steve Waugh declared the innings at 208/5 off 59 overs, leaving the Indian openers to face a daunting last hour of play.
Agarkar showed good temperament and grabbed three wickets, taking his tally for the match to six. He bowled well throughout the game and his dismissal of Steve Waugh was the result of his constant needling. He showed tremendous attitude for a youngster as he kept pegging away at the usually cool veteran.
The Indian reply started on the wrong foot when Laxman impulsively hooked Fleming and holed out to McGrath at deep fine leg. The Indian scoreboard read a sorry 5/1 in only the fourth over and it all looked too familiar. The Indian opening pair has failed miserably through the series and the promotion of Laxman up the order didn't make much of a difference.
Dravid strode out into the middle with a heap of low scores against his name. Ramesh, at the other end, seemed to be unruffled by the pace of either McGrath or Fleming and kept flicking them off his legs for easy pickings. The duo kept the scoreboard ticking by taking singles and rotating the strike, something that they have failed to do on this tour so far.
Dravid was all concentration as he faced McGrath with soft hands and the two looked at ease until Steve Waugh effected a double bowling change and brought Dravid's nemesis on the current tour, Warne, to bowl. Dravid kept pushing at his deliveries and also survived some bat-pad appeals.
When Brett Lee came on to bowl, he shook up the take-it-easy Ramesh with a snorter which lifted viciously and after deflecting from the handle of the bat banged into his grille. Ramesh thereafter looked more determined than ever to stick around.
In an interview with rediff.com, Ramesh had said that if a bowler ever hits him then he gets doubly determined not to give his wicket away to that bowler. And that is exactly how Ramesh played, all concentration while facing Brett Lee, yet never letting an opportunity to score go by.
He was however lucky to survive a caught behind when he nicked one, but Gilchrist, the man who can do no wrong, dropped a catch which otherwise would have taken nine times out of ten, off the bowling of Warne.
Dravid faced the last over of the day from Lee and also refused to take a single, shielding Ramesh from the speedster. But Ramesh, who is a very gritty customer, insisted on taking the single of the very next ball and seemed adamant to settle a score with Lee.
An interesting fare is on the cards on the morrow. Will India pull off an incredible victory, which till last evening was not even a remote possibility? Or will India succumb meekly to the dogged ruthlessness of the Aussies?
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