Late wickets give Australia the edge
As the temperature soared in the afternoon, Sachin Tendulkar appeared on course to replicate his achievement as an 18-year-old, when he made centuries in Sydney and Perth. But a poor decision from Asad Rauf, and three poor strokes from the Indian batsmen redressed the balance as Australia fought back tigerishly in the final session.
Tendulkar departed for 71, and Rahul Dravid fell seven short of a century, leaving MS Dhoni and the tail with the task of propelling India to a sizeable total on a pitch that was nowhere near as fearsome as it had been hyped to be. Despite play being extended by half an hour, Australia still finished six overs short, a deplorable state of affairs that the match referee will surely investigate.
Tendulkar and Dravid had been largely untroubled while adding 139, though Australia may yet look back ruefully at the chance that Michael Clarke shelled at first slip when Dravid had made just 11, and India, 85. India had gone to tea on 2 for 177, and after seeing an edge fall short of second slip soon after, Tendulkar had once again showcased his positive intent with a magnificent off drive off Stuart Clark.
Cue Lee, who had bowled at furious pace all day, and a delivery that thudded into the flap of Tendulkar's pad even as he hopped up a little. Rauf had a think and then raised his finger, leaving Tendulkar to trudge off, shaking his head in disappointment. Sourav Ganguly opened with a lovely off-drive off Clark, but was then distinctly fortunate to see an inside edge streak past his leg stump.
His good luck didn't last long though, and a casual slap to a wide delivery from Mitchell Johnson was brilliantly caught low to his right by Michael Hussey at gully. Suddenly 2 for 198 had become 4 for 214, and Australia's effort with the ball and tireless commitment in the field had its reward.
It should still have been India's day through. VVS Laxman got going with a couple of languid caresses past point, and Dravid (on 67) got a reprieve from Billy Bowden when a Johnson yorker struck him on the boot palpably in front. They capitalised too, with Dravid cutting the ball crisply and then taking to spin when Ricky Ponting attempted to make up for the appalling over-rate. Michael Clarke was glanced and then cut for four, and Andrew Symonds was swept through midwicket as Dravid moved into the 90s.
But a century still proved elusive, with a horrendous hoick at Symonds flying off the top edge to Ponting at cover. That was bad enough, but it got worse soon after when Laxman miscued a pull off Lee to Shaun Tait at mid-off. Once again, he had made a start, only to fritter it away in cavalier fashion.
That was pretty much the story of India's day, one that began with the openers adding 57 on the surface that was supposed to be least India-friendly. Lee started at blistering speed, and Johnson at the other end wasn't much slower. A well-timed cover-drive got Virender Sehwag off the mark, and he followed up with a couple of magnificent shots through the covers when Lee erred in line. With runs being leaked, Ponting replaced Johnson with Clark, but Sehwag was in no mood to slow down, clipping one beautifully through midwicket.
Though Clark was the slowest bowler on view, he also appeared the most dangerous, frequently beating the bat with subtle seam movement. Johnson replaced Lee at the other end, but even with the wind behind him, he struggled to find his rhythm. Clark's control though was making all the difference, though Sehwag marked the 50 of the innings with a crunching shot through extra-cover that bounced back into the field of play off the boundary boards.
After 56 came in the first hour, progress slowed, and the pressure created by Clark's accuracy was finally capitalised on by Johnson, who got some extra bounce to catch the upper edge of Sehwag's bat as he went for another audacious slash. The Melbourne encore [he made a thrilling 195 on Boxing Day in 2003] hadn't materialised, and it went slightly pear-shaped thereafter, with Wasim Jaffer edging Lee behind.
Tait, unleashed only 20 minutes before lunch, and Lee then ensured a torrid passage of play for Tendulkar and Dravid, but India's premier batsmen went to lunch with no further damage to the scoreboard. Tendulkar twice saw edges whiz past the slip cordon, but with the temperature soaring past 36ºC in the afternoon, it was Australia's bowlers who felt the heat.
Tait was erratic, and Tendulkar made full use of the fact that hard slashes were always likely to clear the slip cordon. An edge off Tait did exactly that, and when Lee got one to bounce steeply, Tendulkar nonchalantly bunted it down to third man for four. With both batsmen threading Tait through the off-side field for fours, Ponting opted for change in the shape of Johnson and Clark.
With the runs accumulating steadily and options running out, the medium-pace of Symonds was called on. And with the kettle boiling for tea, India had their second alarm when Tendulkar survived an excellent shout for leg before. Soon after, he scythed the returning Tait over slips to get his half-century from 91 balls. At the other end, Dravid, reprieve apart, was solid, and an elegant off-drive off Tait emphasised India's ascendancy.
As has so often been the case in recent times though, it was the Australian tenacity that had the last word.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo