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Sunday, October 12, 2008

India face date with history

AFTER a titanic struggle, Australia broke the shackles last night to set the scene for a fascinating climax to the Bangalore Test.

On another gripping day of Test cricket, the middle-order pair of Shane Watson and Brad Haddin ensured India would have to make history to win the Test as they built a lead from which Australia hope to take their own shot at victory.

Australia went to stumps at 5-193, a lead of 263. No team has chased more to win a Bangalore Test than Australia's 195 a decade ago, which is one of only two successful run chases at Chinnaswamy Stadium. The biggest fourth innings score at the ground was India's 239 in a losing cause against Australia four years ago.

With Harbhajan Singh casting spells from one end with fielders crowded around the bat and the seamers causing problems from the other, the Australian batsmen fought hard on a wearing wicket to regain the position of superiority that was eroded by India's tail earlier in the day.

Haddin and Watson came together at 5-128 after Harbhajan spun one out of the rough into Michael Hussey's unprotected stumps and Ishant Sharma produced one of his special slower balls to coax Michael Clarke into a loose shot.

The pair made valuable runs, between them cracking three boundaries from one Harbhajan over to stall India's momentum and build a lead beyond 250.

Earlier, when openers Matthew Hayden and Simon Katich walked out to bat with a lead of 70 after the Indian innings was snuffed out on 360, all three results were still possible, but on a fifth-day wicket as treacherous as this, India's focus now must be to save the match. The openers survived a difficult 20-minute session before lunch, needing to build a big enough lead to be safe but also to leave enough time in the match to dismiss India a second time.

It was an epic struggle, particularly after India landed two significant blows in the second session. Zaheer Khan, the hero of two Indian revivals in this Test, charged in at Hayden and struck him low on the pad with a ball that swung fast and late. He claimed the influential Australian for the second time in the match, this time for 13 after his third-ball duck in the first innings.

The Indians were overjoyed to see the back of the man who can score quickly and dominate once he has found his zone, and his departure left Katich to scrape for survival on a wicket that made batting fraught. The left-hander waited 97 balls for his first boundary, releasing the pressure with an expert cut behind point, and was undone by by a Harbhajan top spinner that leapt up on him and was caught in close on the off-side.

Ricky Ponting was greeted by his old tormentor Harbhajan, who scowled when an appeal for a catch at short leg was correctly turned down with the skipper on one.

It was Ponting's other nemesis, Sharma, who ensured there would be no repeat of the Australian captain's monumental contribution of the first innings. A full delivery from Sharma was popped up by Ponting to short mid-wicket, where VVS Laxman took a low, sharp catch.

India's captain, Anil Kumble, aggravated his shoulder injury and could not take the field straight away. He returned to bowl late in the day but there is concern about his capacity to recover for the second Test starting on Friday given he has been carrying the injury for months. There is speculation the leg spinner could be forced to retire before the Border-Gavaskar Trophy is over. Stuart Clark is struggling with an elbow injury for the tourists.

Kumble dropped himself down the order but it turned into a masterstroke, enabling the lower-order Harbhajan and Zaheer to strike an 80-run the partnership that got India back in the game.

Zaheer resumed the struggle at 8-313 on day four and did not retreat from the bold attitude he took into his confrontation with Brad Haddin a day earlier. He struck seven fours and embraced his appreciative captain, who took over from Harbhajan in the support role, when he reached the second half-century of his career.

The Indians added 40 runs in the morning before Watson made another breakthrough, just as he had done to remove Harbhajan the night before. This time, bowling with muscle and good lines, he trapped Kumble lbw for five and finished with figures in his comeback Test of 3-45.

The home team was not finished, and Sharma wore a bouncer on the helmet before Clarke slipped one through Sharma's defences to finish the Indian innings.

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