Tenacious Australia level game
This is no vintage Australian side, certainly not one you'd compare favourably to that which won in India in 2004. The character of the team hasn't changed though. On the eve of the series, VVS Laxman - who's enjoyed plenty of success against Australia, both individual and collective - had said that cricketers in baggy green "don't give you an inch", and late on the third afternoon, they proved him right with a rousing comeback.
At 354 for 4, with Sachin Tendulkar and Suresh Raina seemingly on course for centuries, India would have envisaged batting till tea on the fourth day and then applying the squeeze. Instead, they lost six for 51 in 12.4 overs, yielding Australia a 23-run advantage. Till the final hour, Australia's day of toil had only realised the wickets of Rahul Dravid and Ishant Sharma, the nightwatchman.
It wasn't for lack of effort. Starting with a beautiful outswinger from Ben Hilfenhaus that induced an edge past the slips from Dravid, Australia created several chances. But with edges falling short, a stumping missed by Tim Paine and catches going down, it was a day of frustration until Tendulkar came down the pitch to play Marcus North against the line and missed the ball.
"As a bowling unit, we stuck to our task the whole day," said Mitchell Johnson, whose 5 for 64 was the eye-catching performance of the day. "Dougie [Bollinger] bowled pretty well. [Nathan] Hauritz was out of luck. Else, he would have got a few more wickets."
Hauritz's first 21 overs went for 80, and there was never any possibility of him tying up one end as Pragyan Ojha had on the opening day. But while he didn't turn the ball dramatically, there was lovely drift that induced more than one miscue from Raina in particular. "It was just that in the last hour, things came together for us," said Johnson. "After tea, we just stuck to our plans and remained positive."
Back in 2008, Australia struggled to match India in the reverse-swing stakes. There was much greater parity today though, with Bollinger and Johnson making excellent use of the old ball. Bollinger made the crucial incision, dismissing Dravid, and Johnson then shut down the tail with deliveries that slanted across.
"We did talk about reverse swing in our team meetings and how the Indian players counter it," said Johnson. "We kept the ball really well, and it worked for us."
For Johnson, whose 14 wickets on the previous tour came at quite a cost, this was an especially important day, after the 47-run cameo with the bat. He isn't unduly bothered about whether he's classed as an allrounder or not, but he was conscious of the fact that he had talked himself up in the pre-series build-up.
Before flying to India, Johnson had talked to Glenn McGrath. McGrath thought nothing of putting pressure on himself by targetting the opposition's most important batsmen. In true Pigeon fashion, Johnson targetted Virender Sehwag, speaking of how Australia would attack him with the short ball. After Sehwag breezed to a 38-ball 50, it was indeed a short-pitched delivery from Johnson that got him, looping one to cover off the leading edge.
What Johnson and his mates have done is open up the possibility of all three results. India's spinners are likely to get much more encouragement from the pitch tomorrow than they did in the first innings, and Johnson admitted that there was still much to be done if Australia are to reverse the result of the last tour.
"We would have to bat the whole day tomorrow and hope the wicket breaks up completely when we come to bowl," he said. "It is going to be difficult to bat on this wicket. But we have some quality batsmen in our side and hopefully, they won't let the Indian spinners settle down."
Australia will take much encouragement from the Johnson-inspired late show on the third day, but the match remains in the balance. Back in 2006, a combination of reverse swing [Munaf Patel] and spin [Anil Kumble] decimated England after the two sides had finished pretty much level on first innings. But with Harbhajan Singh limping and Ishant Sharma so listless, Australia will be quietly confident that they can avoid such a fate.