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Fire on Blundstone needed to master endgame

Professional sport is more and more about endgame. Manchester United have made an artform of overturning the conventional belief victory comes from a gradual accumulation of superiority. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, they have played football like chess, in which the opening and middle game are merely a stage-setting before a decisive final phase with its own tactical requirements and its own brain chemistry.

The Australian cricketers are still learning their endgame. On Tuesday, having held the initiative in this Test match since the first morning, they will be seeking a way of bringing it to checkmate. As they found in Cardiff in 2009 and Adelaide three weeks ago, in the post-Warne-McGrath era there is no longer any inevitability about the fourth innings.

Sport's best endgame practitioners - Man United, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, the Queensland rugby league team, Kelly Slater (until this week - Go Parko!) - have had a common denominator: this high-pressure climax, when the game starts anew and normal humans feel like throwing up, is the part they like most. But this relish only comes from the experience of having done it successfully before. This is the chicken-and-egg situation Michael Clarke's men find themselves in. They want to enjoy finishing Sri Lanka off, but the Adelaide failure is recent enough to test self-belief, and few are seasoned in endgame success.

They will be assisted by a pitch in its last throes. The shooters began to multiply late on the fourth afternoon and forced Sri Lanka to think about protecting their last eight wickets rather than chasing the outstanding 328 runs. This doesn't necessarily help Australia. In Adelaide, the simplicity of South Africa's defensive task cleared their batsmen's minds.

Australia's bowlers worked hard, in 37 overs, to find the line, length and pace to exploit the dying wicket. Without the injured Ben Hilfenhaus and unable to call on the hamstrung Clarke, they winkled out the openers but were confronted by a 248-Test, 20,000-run fortress known as Sangakkara-Jayawardene. There is more batting to come. The intensity with which the teams threw themselves at the last session indicated full awareness of the stakes.

By then there were more Tasmanians on the field than in the stands, with reinforcements being drawn from local amateur ranks. One to watch was Jordan Silk who, despite sounding like a femme fatale in a Raymond Chandler novel, fielded as well as a Test player. The ethical problem would arise if he fields better than one, and becomes an antipodean Garry Pratt. Fielding and catching could still decide the match: it is the pawns, the least valuable pieces, that become crucial in the endgame of chess.

While Australia were more vocal and vigorous in the field than their opponents, as they should be on a home ground, there are still remarkably few top-level fieldsmen in this team. The wicketkeeper is improving, but still has his lapses. Their best outfielder, David Warner, had several chances to effect run-outs with accurate throws and complement his mature half-century earlier in the day. It would be unreasonable to criticise him for missing, but great endgame players always seem to hit. Meanwhile Australia's best catcher, Clarke, missed Sangakkara at slip. Clarke walked apologetically to the bowler, Nathan Lyon, at the end of the over. The captain has been desperate to lift his off-spinner's confidence. Lyon was no doubt too sensible to say taking the catch might have given it a boost.

Tasmanian officials announced a crowd figure of 2941. If this sounds poor, imagine if they had told the truth. This correspondent walked the ground and hand-counted the crowd when it was at its peak, before and after lunch. This was not as difficult as it sounds. Let it be said that Cricket Tasmania is either innumerate or dishonest, or that there were at least 1500 people in the toilets and the stairwells when Fairfax Media passed by. The crowd numbers have been embarrassing enough, but by exaggerating them the Tasmanian officials are only inviting more of those old cracks about counting bodies versus counting heads. They should take the lead of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who used to have a reputation for including caterers and cleaners in crowd counts, each time they came in and out of the gates too. As Souths can tell Tasmania, the message is simple: stop bluffing, start promoting the game. The way this Test match is poised, it's doing its own marketing.