At 5:35pm local time, the Sydney Cricket Ground came back to life.
The day had been long and frustrating. The expected full house on Saturday, with the game intriguingly poised, Australia’s supremacy being momentarily challenged and all the publicity generated by the Harbhajan-Symonds controversy, was expected to enthuse fresh spectators, get those already there more pumped up and create an atmosphere that would make cricket the perfect gladiatorial spectator sport.
But the weather played spoilsport instead. Three rain breaks and a chilly breeze that periodically wafted across the stadium meant that this wasn’t exactly a typical summer’s day of cricket. That, and the fact that, on the field, nothing really was happening, meant that people seemed to come and go. Large areas of the SCG stands remained empty.
As the morning wore on and Phil Jaques and Matthew Hayden batted with a solidity that nullified the Indian attack, the hopes of that perfect weekend faded away. They swatted away RP Singh and Ishant Sharma with ease. They treated both Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble with more respect but at no stage did they seem intimidated, or even worried, by the fact that the pitch was taking more turn.
The odd ball was edged and wouldn’t carry, the odd shot was mistimed and fell in the gaps, the odd extra run was not taken because the Australian batsmen seemed to be intent on playing to a plan, one that saw them just stand there, come what may.
The flamboyance and aggression normally associated with the Australian batting was missing; in its place was a stubborn determination and a gritty resolve to see this through till the end. It was a different Australia we had on show today, one that did not come charging into your face and beat you down into a pulp, more, perhaps, one that slowly took over your head and let you do the rest.
The Indians incidentally, didn’t really ever look like they would get a wicket, or sustain the intensity of the previous day till the time Kumble broke down Jaques’s mental shutters with the score on 85.
Ponting’s wicket (he could now wear a tag saying ‘Bhajji’s Bunny’) meant that things had opened up again for India. Harbhajan’s football-style run and rollover thereafter, was definitely not taken in good humour by the Aussies but for everyone else, it was quite an incredible sight.
But then though, the mood darkened, as Mr Cricket himself, Michael Hussey, walked in to join Hayden, who, frankly, is to Indian bowlers what Laxman must be to the Aussies. Together, they made the afternoon session their own, calmly and cautiously, to possibly bat India out of this game.
Hayden, plagued by a strained thigh muscle, still batted on to make his 29th century and 1500 runs against India till he was trapped by Kumble, who also removed Michael Clarke next ball.
At this point, Australia are 213 runs ahead and have six wickets in hand.
Ponting has a serious dilemma ahead — should he declare early on Sunday and take a chance on an India win or play safe, knowing that Perth’s pace and bounce will give them their best chance of retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy? The flip side of that? It means that the current Aussie squad’s quest to equal the world record for maximum Test wins on the trot would be dead.
Then, if Ponting does declare about half an hour before lunch, it might just give his bowlers enough time to have a go at the strong Indian line-up. But then again, what score is safe? Experts say 300.
But logically, on this track, even 280 to chase in, say, 70 overs, would be very tough. Four runs an over through a game is not easy, not for a team facing the Aussies. Logically, this game should be headed for a draw.
Anyway, this is all hypothetical. What was very real was the way Andrew Symonds was greeted by Sydneysiders at the stadium when he walked in to bat at 5:35pm — it was a standing ovation for a man who hadn’t yet faced a ball.
The Indians, possibly conscious that they would be watched very carefully from this time on, behaved with commendable restraint. Whether that will remain on Sunday though, we’ll have to wait and see.