Honours even after see-saw day
Australia 5 for 259 (Smith 72*, Rogers 57, Watson 52) v India
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
"Just give me a start."
It can't be known for sure whether or not Steven Smith has said this to his team yet, but on the evidence of the summer so far Australia's new captain could be forgiven for uttering just such an instruction. Once again, Smith radiated certainty, adapting to the idiosyncrasies of the MCG's drop-in pitch, India's persevering bowlers and the occasion of Boxing Day, the biggest on the national cricket calendar.
He did not walk to the wicket until the day's 37th over due to important early innings from Chris Rogers and Shane Watson. Both men failed to go on from starts, and compounded the missed opportunity by falling in successive overs, but their work against the new ball was critical after David Warner fell to the ball angled across him as India belatedly abandoned their around the wicket brainstorm.
Shaun Marsh helped Smith steady the innings and Joe Burns made a brief debut appearance, before Brad Haddin shrugged off another concerted short-pitched attack on his body - wearing one hefty blow on the back - to accompany Smith to the close. On a surface that has offered variable pace and bounce plus a modicum of movement for the pacemen, Australia's tally is already useful, and they can rely on Smith to add to it on day two.
Recalled in place of Varun Aaron, Mohammed Shami bowled neatly for the visitors, while R Ashwin delivered long and teasing spells from the Great Southern Stand end of the ground. He was rewarded only with the wicket of Watson, who followed a familiar pattern by starting fluently, losing momentum then losing his wicket to a somewhat ambitious stroke.
The weather at the MCG was fair, and the pitch provided some early assistance for India's seamers. Rogers was struck amidships by an Ishant Sharma delivery that cut back at him in the first over of the morning, and in the second Umesh Yadav found the perfect delivery from over the wicket, fast and seaming, to coax an outside edge from Warner.
Shikhar Dhawan held a fine catch, and amid India's celebrations they might have wondered why this was the first time in the series that Warner was asked to face a ball angled across him rather than moving in from around the wicket before he had found his bearings. A sore thumb cannot have helped either.
Ishant, Shami and Umesh all delivered some vexing overs to follow-up, but found Rogers well attuned to the challenges of day-one batting at the MCG through his vast experience for Victoria. Watson was also fluent and alert, though fortunate that a few edges either did not carry or bisected MS Dhoni's cordon.
Together, they took shine from the new ball while also scoring with a good degree of freedom - Rogers strong down the ground and through point, while Watson prospered through the pull shot and also manoeuvred the ball through midwicket without quite so much apparent risk of lbw as spectators have become used to.
Dhawan went from 100% to 50% when he dropped Watson's edge from Shami 10 minutes before the lunch interval, taking three bites at the ball before guiding it to ground. This reprieve, and a few other misfields, left Rogers and Watson to amble to lunch in happier circumstances than they might have imagined when Warner was dismissed.
A boundary to Watson from the final ball of the second over after lunch seemed to herald more free-scoring, but it was in fact the last such scoring shot for more than 16 overs. Australian progress was stymied by Shami and, particularly, Ashwin, who used his height and variations in pace to good effect.
Rogers went to his 50, as did Watson, but neither would go on. A Shami delivery of teasing line and in-between length found Rogers' outside edge on 57, and in the following over Watson swept across a straight ball from Ashwin and was lbw.
Understandably, Smith and Marsh took their time to avert further loss, but as tea loomed both had found something approaching a decent batting rhythm. Smith opened up the final session by sallying forth to deposit Ashwin into the long-off seats, but lost Marsh when he snicked Shami, firm-footed, through to Dhoni.
Burns was greeted by an optimistic MCG ovation, and looked compact and sure on his way to 13. But Umesh cramped an attempted pull shot and found the thinnest of bottom edges to send Burns on his way, no doubt hoping to improve on a first innings all too brief. Haddin weathered the short ball without looking entirely comfortable - he often turned his head away - but a straight six off Ashwin signalled he was feeling more relaxed at the crease.
Smith and Haddin negotiated the final few overs safely enough, and the day ended on the stroke of scheduled stumps. In its own way, this instance of timeliness was as notable as the rich vein Smith is currently mining.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig