Australia fight, but once again India rally
India are doing to Australia what casinos do to patrons. Regardless of fleeting, joyful gains, the house always wins.
No matter what Australia have produced so far in this series, it is India who have ended up converting reversals into advantage. The conditions have played their part, as has the difference in the skills needed required to handle them.
Australia have won every single toss of the series and done what India would themselves have wanted to do. In Chennai, they scored 380 and had India at 12 for 2 and then 196 for 4. Then came Dhoni. They sent back Sehwag in Hyderabad, before M Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara scored 300-plus together. In Mohali, they went from 251 for 7 to 408 thanks to a 99 from their No. 9. Then Shikhar Dhawan turned up to trample over their bowling. On Sunday, India lost all ten first-innings wickets for 210, scored at under three runs per over, and had their lead limited to 91. By stumps, though, India's grip on the game was as strong if not stronger than it had been at the end of day three.
Australia finished at 75 for 3, still 16 behind India, and Michael Clarke has a bad back. Given that this Test match is a shortened contest, and the quality of the Australian resistance in the series so far, India have done enough to stay ahead.
Vijay scored his second century of the series and his third against Australia, a performance that will give both the batsman and the selectors much hope for the months ahead. In the morning, Vijay rolled along with Tendulkar, but during a period before lunch, India found their tyres stuck. For some reason, Australia didn't take the second new ball when it was due, with Mitchell Starc and Xavier Doherty sharing overs between them until the 90th. In that period, India scored merely 21 runs in 10 overs. They lost Tendulkar at lunch, and when the new ball was introduced, the Indian innings began to fall apart. In a series dominated by Indian spin, it was swing bowling that came into play.
Vijay's own dismissal after his second consecutive exceptionally well-paced innings, padding up to an inswinger from Starc, came first delivery with the second new ball. Vijay said after play: "Actually I lost my concentration little bit for that period, I think with the new ball and stuff." The Indian batting as a whole, it could be said, lost their concentration round about lunch time. It was their bowling that brought the game back.
The original plan, Vijay said, "was to bat as long as possible and we just wanted to set up a big lead so that we can come back into the Test match and win it hopefully. That was our thinking and … there are 90 overs left tomorrow." Regardless of how the second session panned out, he didn't think India had tossed away the advantage. "I think we are in a pretty good position at this moment, considering the wicket and everything. There is nothing to be worried about."
Vijay was asked whether the lack of quality spinners for Australia had helped India to which his reply was a dead-pan, "I can't comment on that but I think we are batting brilliantly and we are countering them better than expected." Brilliant batting should not produce a lead of 91 from an opening partnership of 289, but never mind.
On a pitch made for runs, a lead of 91 was going to shrink quickly, but then Sunday remained a bowlers' day. Even though Phil Hughes took his chances, Bhuvneshwar Kumar's three wickets ate into the Australian batting with another performance that filled Indian hearts with joy and relief. This is probably the most batsman-friendly Mohali has been in ages, with spin its eventual intended preference. Still, it was Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle who breathed life into Australia's hopes this afternoon, before Bhuvneshwar stepped in to stamp all over them in the course of his eight-over spell.
Against Bhuvneshwar, David Warner will admit he was on a suicide mission and Ed Cowan can probably curse his fate. The ball that got Steven Smith, though, was a confection. Australia's most composed first-innings batsman had the line well covered for what looked to be an in swinger. On pitching, though, like a drunken wasp, the ball changed directions and knocked out the off-stump.
Subsequently, the Australian bowling effort in the afternoon ended up being not a match-altering passage of play but one of the "positives" that losing captains are always asked about. Vijay said that as much as the bite and the spit off the track, reverse swing had begun to play its part. "It has been swinging from day one and that is what we prepared for because it's Mohali. It is happening, so hopefully we should wait for some [reverse] to happen tomorrow. It is getting lower and slower so it is going to be difficult for them to score runs."
This is standard practice in cricket, one side offering ominous pitch predictions in the hope of ensuring that seeds of doubt germinate among the opposition. But given Australia's batting in this series, maybe Vijay is merely stating a fact.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo