Adelaide: Michael Clarke knew when he won the toss that this Adelaide Oval pitch would be perfect for batting. As the team's No.5, he wasn't expecting to be in before lunch. When he and Ricky Ponting came together in the opening session, Australia were 3 for 84. It wasn't quite precarious, but nor was it secure. By stumps, they were 3 for 335. Clarke and Ponting both had hundreds. It was Australia Day, 48 hours early.
On a day when the temperature hit 37C, the Indians were down on energy and, by stumps, they were down on hope. The series was already lost, but this match was a chance to regain some respect. For a session, it appeared they were going to do that. Of course, if the pitch remains this good, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Co might also fill their boots, but first they'll need to get through Australia.
Already the Ponting-Clarke partnership had swollen to 251, and was reminiscent of their 288-run stand at the SCG earlier this month. That partnership was followed by an even better triple-century stand between Clarke and Michael Hussey. The captain MS Dhoni was unable to find a way to break through that combination, and he might have been glad of his suspension for slow over rates as he watched Sehwag struggle with a similar scenario in Adelaide.
Not that India didn't have their chances. On 36, Clarke chased a wide delivery from Ishant Sharma and edged to where first slip should have been, but Sehwag had the fielder floating at second slip instead. So early in an Adelaide Test it was a strange field setting. Not long after, Sehwag removed the slips entirely. How he intended to find a wicket was anyone's guess.
Shortly before stumps, Ishant again found the edge against Clarke, on 133 at the time, with the second new ball. This time there were two slips in, but VVS Laxman at second could not cling on diving to his right. It would be understandable to be exhausted in mind and body at the end of a long, hot day, but India simply needed every half-chance to be taken.
By the close, Clarke was on 140 and had overtaken Ponting, who flew out of the blocks before settling in throughout the afternoon and went to stumps on 137. It was Ponting's second century of the series, and unless he makes a surprise retirement announcement, he will be on the plane to the West Indies for Australia's next Test tour in April.
It was apparent from the start of his innings that Ponting was in vintage touch. He played three classic Ponting strokes, a punchy straight drive, a searing pull and a back-foot drive through the off side. All were perfectly timed and all ran away to the boundary, and after lunch the runs kept coming with lofts off the spinners, crunchy drives and ones and twos that kept the scoreboard ticking over.
He settled in to his rhythm and passed 13,000 Test runs, the third man behind Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid to reach the mark, but a subdued bat-raise and handshake with Clarke was all that the milestone brought. As far as Ponting was concerned, plenty of work lay ahead. He brought up his hundred with a boundary cut behind point off Zaheer Khan from his 164th ball, and this time he did celebrate.
At the other end, Clarke was already catching up, having taken to the offspin of R Ashwin. He brought up his fifty with a lofted boundary over mid-on off Ashwin, and followed with three boundaries in another Ashwin over, all through the off side, as runs flowed easily for the Australians. Clarke's century arrived from his 133rd delivery with a steer to the third-man boundary off Umesh Yadav, who had a horror day and finished with 0 for 87 off 12 overs.
Clarke's innings was all the more impressive given the situation when he came to the crease shortly before lunch. Early in the day's play, Sehwag showed some tactical nous by introducing Ashwin within the first 15 minutes. His intention was to keep a check on David Warner, who had launched Umesh Yadav back over his head for an all-run four in the second over of the game.
Warner was keen to go after the fast men but was more hesitant against the spin, and while it was the Zaheer Khan who trapped Warner lbw for 8, Sehwag's move had ensured Warner stayed quiet. Ashwin added a breakthrough of his own when he pushed a ball through the big gap between bat and pad left by Shaun Marsh, who was anticipating spin and missed a straight one.
The ball clipped his off stump and Marsh was out for 3, continuing his horror series and perhaps giving John Inverarity's selection panel an easy decision when Shane Watson returns from injury. Marsh's Test scores since returning from a back injury now read 0, 3, 0, 11, 3. From either side, only Nathan Lyon is averaging less with the bat than Marsh this series.
After Marsh departed, Ponting and Ed Cowan steadied with a 53-run partnership, both men keen to keep the scoreboard ticking, but a lapse in concentration on 30 ended Cowan's innings. He drove Ashwin straight to short cover and it was a soft dismissal, especially coming as it did within a quarter of an hour of the lunch break, on a pitch promising plenty of runs.
After lunch, Ponting and Clarke showed Cowan what he was missing. And they showed India how hard it would be to finish the Test series with a consolation win.