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Aussies back in hunt with a bang
- Hayden, Ponting take centrestage after Indian capitulation

Melbourne, Dec. 27: It’s customary for Matthew Hayden to give the wicket a close look on the eve of a Test. That exercise is short, but helps the opener with a big appetite to focus better. Obviously, he has been ‘reading’ the MCG surface well and, today, completed a hattrick.

That, coupled with captain-designate Ricky Ponting’s sixth hundred of the year (20th overall), enabled Australia reach a terms-dictating position in the third Test. At stumps on the second day, the hosts were just 49 short of India’s first innings tally.

Simply put, while Australia batted themselves in, India appeared to have batted themselves out.

Incredibly, the last six wickets fell for 16, cancelling out the advantage gained by hundred-plus partnerships for the first two. Even this morning, India resumed on a healthy 329 for four, but once captain Sourav Ganguly departed to a poor shot, the procession stopped only with last man Ashish Nehra’s dismissal.

“It’s been a bad day... No excuses... However, the match isn’t over and it could become a different ball game if we restrict Australia to within 450,” Sourav, who hasn’t got over the disappointment of gifting his wicket to Brett Lee, told The Telegraph.

The captain deserves to be upbraided because, in the same over, he had taken two exquisite boundaries off the speed merchant and should have seen off that spell. Instead, he opened the face of his bat and...

At the moment, restricting Australia is being too optimistic. Yet, as vice-captain Rahul Dravid pointed out, the team will have to forget “a poor day in office” and look to slugging it out from the first delivery on the morrow.

The Indians, though, look set to again run into trouble with Match Referee Mike Procter. The day, after all, extended for around 50 minutes and the one-time legendary allrounder may not be lenient.

Significantly, the fast — 168 were creamed off in the final session — and furious Australian reply has come a week after coach John Buchanan’s stinging letter to the players, with particular emphasis on the batsmen, leaked. The Haydens, therefore, made a point.

Understandably, the Australians are aiming to bat once. “Yes, it will be nice if we can do that,” acknowledged Ponting, adding that some of the balls have already been keeping low. Clearly, batting fourth isn’t a comfortable proposition.

How far the Pontings go will be known by lunch and the opening session is going to be as important as any so far. The Australians, by the way, had vowed to raise their play during the first session today and they did.

In any case, being 0-1 down, they know the need of this Test and beyond. “Look, we let slip one (in Adelaide), but have done a pretty good job here... We are aware this is Steve Waugh’s last series and doing the simple things correctly will help,” Ponting remarked.

Incidentally, while the captain-designate insisted he wasn’t driven by records/milestones, he has had a phenomenal 2003 (in the ODIs as well). “I don’t look back... What has gone is past... I prefer looking ahead,” he declared, when someone drew his attention to having collected 1,335 runs with one innings remaining.

While Ponting is No. 1 in the leading scorers’ list, followed by Brian Lara (1,333), Hayden isn’t far behind — 1,305.

Ponting came into the picture after Justin Langer’s exit and remained unbeaten on 120 (237 minutes, 214 deliveries, 10x4). In fact, he and Hayden collaborated 234 for the second wicket, an effort which could force a 1-1 scoreline going into the January 2 Test at the SCG.

“We have business-like partnerships,” quipped Hayden, who didn’t allow his young daughter’s illness to distract in the build-up to the Boxing Day showdown. Hayden himself scored 136 (260 minutes, 173 balls, 17x4, 1x6), his fifth hundred of the year and 17th overall. As usual, he was strong on both sides and off either leg.

The world record-holder intimidates and, often, the Indians cowered.

However, like Ponting, Hayden was lucky to survive a more than confident shout for leg-before from senior pro Anil Kumble. The leggie eventually did get Hayden (trying to sweep) and Adam Gilchrist (caught by Nehra) but, by then, the proverbial horse had bolted.

Hayden, who came into the Test with hundreds in each of his last two appearances at the MCG, against South Africa and England, described the amphitheatre (which even hosted the 1956 Olympics) as an “awesome place.”

To return to the appeals, Billy Bowden also gave Ponting the benefit of doubt despite the Indians being convinced he had gone, on 98, taken at the wicket off Zaheer Khan. Perhaps feeling cheated, the Indians didn’t applaud his hundred. Not that it affected Ponting. “Who’s bothered'” he countered.

Zaheer, of course, had to be used sparingly — upsetting Sourav’s plans — as he has again developed a hamstring problem. Another flare-up and India will be a bowler short. “We’ll be looking to capitalise,” informed Ponting, smiling.

It’s interesting that Gilchrist was promoted to allow regular No. 4 Damien Martyn get his “concentration” back as he had spent hours padded-up, waiting to take guard. It’s a tactic which may well be employed by others.

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