Mohali:VVS Laxman overcame his sore back to become the hero of a nail-biting one-wicket victory for India, who retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in dramatic fashion in Mohali. In one of the most memorable finishes in recent history, Pragyan Ojha picked up two leg-byes off Mitchell Johnson to seal the result, which until that delivery could also have been a tie or an Australian win.
The match was firmly in Australia's grasp when the No. 10 Ishant Sharma joined Laxman with 92 runs still required, but the pair ground Australia down and left a dejected Ricky Ponting still winless as a Test captain in India. The visitors' hopes were raised again when Ben Hilfenhaus (4 for 57) trapped Ishant lbw - although the ball would have missed leg stump - with 11 runs needed.
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In the final, chaotic scenes, Australia continued to attack, desperate for one wicket. They thought they had it two balls before the winning runs were struck, when Mitchell Johnson rapped Ojha on the pads only to have a strong lbw shout denied. Adding to the commotion, Ojha wandered out of his crease and a throw from gully that would have found him short missed the stumps and ran away for four overthrows.
When the winning leg-byes arrived, the Indian players streamed onto the field as the Australians thrust hands on heads. For sheer on-field tension, the finish ranked up there with Australia's last-minute SCG win of 2007-08. But that match was overshadowed by claims of poor sportsmanship; this time there should be no such post-script.
On that occasion Ishant was the last man out as the sun set over Sydney; in Mohali he was every bit as important as Laxman, with a defiant innings of 31 in their partnership of 81. But Laxman was the star. The Australians will wonder how they let such a golden opportunity slip; the answer lies in the hands, or wrists, of one of their chief tormentors of recent years.
Entering the final day, Ponting's men feared Sachin Tendulkar, who went to stumps unbeaten on 10, much more than they were concerned about Laxman. They knew that in the first innings VVS had been very, very sore. He'd batted at No. 10, with a runner, and was hampered in his strokeplay. Two days later, the man with the most unique initials in cricket was very, very stubborn.
Again he had a runner, Suresh Raina, but just as important were the eight boundaries he struck in his 73, which came from 79 deliveries. Had he not started to farm the strike in the dying stages, he would have finished with a strike-rate of more than 100 for only the fourth time in his 188 Test innings.
Laxman flicked the ball through gaps and was always looking to counterattack as Ponting continued to set aggressive fields. His approach was critical, for Australia had all the momentum in the hour before lunch when Doug Bollinger, who did not take the field after lunch due to abdominal stiffness, made two breakthroughs, including the key wicket of Tendulkar for 38.
But try as they might, Australia under Ponting simply haven't been able to close out a victory in India. In 2008 he was over-defensive, failing to push for wickets and grab opportunities when they arose. This time Ponting didn't do much wrong; Laxman was just too good.
India began the day needing 161 runs and for an hour they were cruising, as Tendulkar and Laxman brought the target down with a rapidity that alarmed Ponting. Nathan Hauritz had picked up the night-watchman Zaheer Khan, caught at slip, but was leaking runs and when he conceded 14 off an over, Ponting knew the fast men were his only option.
Cheers went around the ground as Tendulkar passed 1000 Test runs in a calendar year for the sixth time in his career, and it seemed that he was destined to deliver India to victory. But his desire to score quickly brought his undoing, when he tried to cut Bollinger over the cordon to the vacant third-man region.
The ball was too close to his body and he steered it to gully, where Michael Hussey grabbed the sharp chance. Tendulkar was gone, and the atmosphere cooled down slightly as the runs began to dry up. Then came the second big moment of joy for Australia, when the presence of a runner cost MS Dhoni his wicket.
Laxman drove Bollinger to mid-on and his runner Raina took off for what should have been a comfortable single. But Dhoni appeared confused by Laxman remaining in his ground and the hesitation was enough to give hope to the fielder Hilfenhaus, whose superb direct hit at the striker's end finished Dhoni's stay on 2.
When Bollinger's fast, well-directed bouncer had a fending Harbhajan Singh caught at slip two balls later, Australia were in control. Laxman and Ishant had other ideas, and the rest is history. The great shame is that this is only a two-match series.