A Test on steroids

With one day remaining in the Sydney Test, Australia needs 433 runs to win with ten wickets in hand. It shouldn’t be possible. Shouldn’t.

But this Test – and indeed many Test matches lately – have been so unusual that it can’t be absolutely ruled out.

We’ve seen an exhilirating four days of batting at the SCG. Australia made 474 in their first innings, yet it wasn’t enough to avoid giving Indian captain Ganguly the option of enforcing the follow-on (which, as it happened, he elected not to do).

Alongside a dazzling innings by VVS Laxman, we’ve seen Sachin Tendulkar produce the highest score of his adult career, before going on to surpass 300 runs for the match. Quickfire centuries by Justin Langer and Simon Katich have been dwarfed by comparison, and lost in the media hype alongside the departing Steve Waugh’s tradesmanlike 40.

And in the midst of all this batting hyperactivity, we have had Anil Kumble taking 8/141 in the Australian first innings – the first eight-fer at the Sydney Cricket Ground since the 19th century! (Tom Richardson took 8/94 for England in March 1898 in the last Test of his career.)

A target of 433 in 90 overs on a fifth day wicket should be ludicrous, but we have seen so many powerful performances by this Australian battery over the past couple of years. The sentimentalists would have Steve Waugh playing a rearguard knock to win the game, or slightly more realistically, to draw it. It would be a shame, however, if Australia turned the match into a tame finish rather than go down in a kaleidoscopic heap.

If we’re looking for history on day five of this Sydney Test, we should keep an eye on Anil Kumble. No one else in this Indian side looks quite the match-winner in this situation, although nineteen year-old Irfan Pathan is clearly a player of the future. No one has taken thirteen wickets in a Test at the SCG. So far.

One passing point as we await the start of the final day of this quite breathtaking Test series. Has Sachin Tendulkar played his last Test innings on Australian soil? Amidst all the wildly excessive hysteria over Steve Waugh, is there another farewell that Sydney cricket fans are overlooking?

The curse of the retiring captains

It was nineteen years ago – January 1985 – when Clive Lloyd played his 110th and last Test, his 74th as captain, leading the West Indies against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground. A world-beating team at the peak of its form, the West Indies was expected to trounce Australia as they had done throughout that series, sending Lloyd out on a high. Instead, the Aussies won by an innings and 55 runs.

It’s now January 2004, the venue is again the Sydney Cricket Ground, and Steve Waugh is playing his 168th Test, already announced a couple of months ago as his last. It is his 57th as captain, of which he was won a staggering forty-one. The hype around Sydney has been incredible, with the first three days of the Test sold out in advance in anticipation of giving Waugh a rousing farewell.

However, like Lloyd, it seems that Waugh will walk off the SCG as a last-time loser. With two days’ play remaining in the 2004 Test against India, Australia are 164 runs short of avoiding the follow-on, with four wickets in hand. They have already become, in this game, the first Australian side to give up 700 runs in an innings on home soil.

This is, to be sure, a rustier Australian team than we have seen in recent times. The bowling is weak, Brett Lee is below (and possibly past) his best, and Stuart MacGill is not consistent enough. (And, yes, MacGill does now have more career Test wickets than Bill O’Reilly. What a travesty.) The fielding looks below par at times, and neither Damien Martyn nor Adam Gilchrist have fired with the bat in this series. Nor, really, has Waugh himself, and one has to wonder how badly the whole farewell thing has interfered with the performance of the Australian team.

India, however, deserve to be on top at this stage. They have now surely retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy as it would take some rank recklessness for them to hand Australia a victory in this game. While their bowling in this series is probably little better, if at all, than Australia’s, the difference has been in the ability of their top batsmen to fire at one time or another. Now that Tendulkar has exploded back into form with his career best 241 not out, all of the Indian top six with the exception of Akash Chopra have contributed at least one big hundred to the team cause during the series. In Laxman’s case, he has done so twice.

Only Hayden, Langer and Ponting can be said to have fired for Australia. Even the tail-enders, one or more of whom can often be expected to pitch in with the odd 60 or 70, have not delivered any extra runs for the Aussies this time.

Despite an extraordinary record as Australian captain, Waugh won’t be going out on top. But that sure didn’t do the reputation of Clive Lloyd any harm.

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