India on course for victory

India kept hold of their powerful position in the Third Test at the WACA, and at the close of the third day remain on course to inflict only the second ever defeat over a full-strength Australia at the ground by a team other than West Indies. Thanks to a superb innings from VVS Laxman, plus important contributions from Virender Sehwag, Irfan Pathan, Mahendra Dhoni and, remarkably, Rudra Pratap Singh, they were able to set the Australians a target of 413. Pathan then repeated his first-innings trick by removing both Australian openers in his new-ball spell.

Sehwag had already flogged his way to 29 overnight, and he added another 14 in quick time in the morning. His innings appeared to be over when he edged a flat-footed drive at Brett Lee to Michael Hussey in the gully in the 6th over of the day. But in an uncharacteristic lapse – not his team’s first or last of the match – he let the ball slip from his grasp. This one did not cost Australia, as Sehwag had faced just one more delivery when he was bowled by a superb ball from the thus-far luckless Stuart Clark which shaped to move away but nipped back through the gate.

India have tended to lose wickets in batches this tour, and the habit continued as Rahul Dravid departed for just 3 in Lee’s next over, pushing a needless defensive stroke at a ball well wide of off. Sachin Tendulkar, once more, looked in princely touch, and Pathan, quiet during his stand with Sehwag, begun to find his range, punishing the errant Mitchell Johnson (whose 7 overs up to the lunch break cost 53). But Ricky Ponting kept Lee on – unsurprisingly given Shaun Tait’s wild inaccuracies so far in the game – and he was rewarded as Tendulkar, having reached 13, played around a straight ball from which Lee jumped wide of the crease. Johnson, continuing to struggle, nonetheless removed Sourav Ganguly for a duck as he drove at one that swung away. Michael Clarke, who had made the Australians’ first error of the match when he crucially reprieved Dravid on the opening morning, this time held on. Suddenly, at 125 for 5, just 243 ahead, India were in danger of throwing away their position.

Tait bowled 2 overs just before lunch, which cost 9, and rather surprisingly Clarke opened-up after the break. His near-namesake Clark, however, was given the ball and finally removed the doughty Pathan, who had scored a 64-ball 46. The Australians, who had haemorrhaged runs at 4.79-an-over for the first 33 overs, suddenly tightened the noose. The first 10 overs after lunch cost just 11 runs, Clark regaining his customary parsimony and Johnson courageously fighting back, bowling 3 overs for 5. Australia’s over-rate, however, remained appalling, and Clarke was called back into the attack presumably in an attempt to speed things up. Soon Andrew Symonds was given the ball too, bowling seam off a short run-up, and Laxman and Dhoni thrived. Working the ball around and striking the occasional massive blow, the Indians extended their lead during the 19 overs the two part-timers bowled in tandem.

Lee was finally recalled, and Symonds had turned to fingerspin midway through his spell. It was the latter which eventually broke the crucial 75-run stand, as Dhoni attempted a bizarre dab, gloved, and Adam Gilchrist took a very fine running catch. Immediately, the captain Anil Kumble was gone too, edging to Clarke at slip. At 235 for 8, the Australians would have been sensing a quick kill. Tea was taken soon after Symonds’ over, with India leading by 363.

RP Singh, out for ducks in his previous two innings in the series, had other ideas. Having struck a massive blow off Symonds just before the break, he proved surprisingly difficult to dislodge. Laxman attempted to up the pace, and should have gone at 59 (the score on 253) when he flashed at a wide ball from Lee, but Clarke shelled another, this time at gully. It proved costly, as both batsmen continued to work the ball around, and occasionally hit a boundary or two. Clark and Gilchrist finally broke the partnership, but not before it had added an invaluable 51. The ball would have opened eyes in both camps, as would an earlier one from Clarke which ripped past RP’s outside-edge. This one spat off a good length to take the glove. The next two deliveries went to the boundary, but Lee finally grabbed the last wicket. Laxman, who had reached 79, bottom-edged one to give Gilchrist another catch.

With a final second-innings total of 294, the Indians had set a target that had only once been bettered, by West Indies against Australia at the old Recreation Ground, St.John’s, Antigua in 2003. And it will take a massive effort from Australia’s middle-order to reach this one and claim a record 17th consecutive victory, as Pathan produced two superb deliveries to remove Chris Rogers and Phil Jaques. Despite a positive start, reaching 15, Rogers has endured an eminently forgettable Test debut, and his second-innings was ended when he was squared-up by a superb away-swinger which he nicked to Dhoni.

Jaques too struck the ball crisply, but could manage just 16 before he attempted to force through the off, was beaten by another away-swinger and easily caught by Wasim Jaffer at third-slip. Ponting and Hussey moved the score on to 65, but have a massive task on their hands tomorrow. It will almost certainly take something monumental from Australia’s two premier batsmen to get their team into a position to win this match.

India 330
Rahul Dravid 93, Sachin Tendulkar 71
Mitchell Johnson 4-86, Brett Lee 3-71

Australia 212
Andrew Symonds 66, Adam Gilchrist 55
Rudra Pratap Singh 4-68

India 294
VVS Laxman 79, Irfan Pathan 46, Virender Sehwag 43
Stuart Clark 4-61, Brett Lee 3-54

Australia 2 for 65
Irfan Pathan 2-22

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