Gambhir century sets India on course
It took Gautam Gambhir nearly four years to make his second Test century having posted his first against Bangladesh in Chittagong; within nine days he has added a third. And if scoring two hundreds against the world's No. 1 Test team within a fortnight was not enough of a thrill, Gambhir can celebrate striking his highest Test score at his home ground and giving India an excellent start to a match that could deliver them the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
When Gambhir, who had been impressively patient throughout the day, brought up the milestone with an unexpected six slammed nonchalantly over long-on off Shane Watson, the roars around the Feroz Shah Kotla were loud and long-lasting. The fans had been denied a century from Sachin Tendulkar, who was in magnificent touch until he fell for 68, but the Gambhir hundred was ample compensation.
The only ones not cheering were the Australians, who were witnessing an opening day that bore worrying similarities to the first three sessions in Mohali. Ricky Ponting insisted at the toss that his men had identified the problems that lost them the second Test and had worked tirelessly to fix the issues.
But apart from pinching two early wickets, Australia again had few causes for optimism. Their concerns included a lack of pace in the pitch, the absence of a frontline spinner, the inability of their fast men to consistently swing the ball, and the concentration of India's batsmen. It was a very familiar list of troubles.
The day went firmly in India's favour as soon as Gambhir and Tendulkar bedded down for a patient and important 130-run partnership. For most of their time together it was Tendulkar who looked by far the more dangerous. Unburdened by questions over when he would break the Test run-scoring record, he was in superb form.
A couple of brilliantly executed back-foot drives that raced past point for boundaries off Mitchell Johnson were a hint that something special might have been coming. An exquisitely-timed cover-drive to an overpitched Brett Lee delivery was just as attractive and Tendulkar passed 50 for the 20th time in Tests against Australia with a delicate and seemingly effortless late cut for four off Stuart Clark.
A 40th Test century was looming when Tendulkar edged behind off Johnson in the final over before tea. But Australia's momentary spark was quickly extinguished after the break when Gambhir lifted his pace.
When the Australians were running through a pre-series analysis of India's batting line-up they must have assumed the major threats would be the usual suspects: Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. But the back-to-back centuries have come from Gambhir, the least experienced man in the top order.
Particularly impressive was the patience displayed by Gambhir after the early losses of Sehwag and Dravid. He comfortably saw India through a slightly nervous period, realising that there was not severe swing, seam movement or steepling bounce, and a sensible approach should work.
He did pounce at times - a pull off Watson comfortably cleared midwicket and sped away for four - but mostly Gambhir displayed his class with terrific timing and placement. A cover-driven boundary off Johnson rivalled anything Tendulkar had provided and he was quickly on to any seamers who strayed towards his pads.
When the platform was safely constructed, Gambhir changed gears more smoothly than Lewis Hamilton. Watson's around-the-wicket angle, which had tied down the left-hander, suddenly became a liability as Gambhir clipped balls repeatedly through the leg side. He began to cut and drive through the off-side more readily and capped off an attacking period by clubbing the six to move from 99 to 105.
The runs did not stop there. Laxman was almost unnoticed, inasmuch as that can be said of his glorious flicks through leg, in building a valuable half-century that helped stop any momentum Australia might have collected when Tendulkar departed. Laxman and Gambhir's unbeaten 139-run partnership became a major frustration for Ponting, whose troops performed admirably at times but failed to maintain the pressure.
The first hour had brought two mood-improving strikes for a team that had suffered a crushing loss in Mohali. In the third over Sehwag was beaten by Lee's speed and was struck dead in line, then as soon as Johnson came on he drew Dravid into an ill-advised drive that caught the edge and was terrifically snared by Matthew Hayden at first slip.
But the momentum eased, despite impressively tight bowling from Stuart Clark, who returned to the side having missed the second Test with an elbow injury. Australia's decision not to play the offspinner Jason Krejza meant Cameron White was again the leading slow bowler and his initial signs were not good.
Tendulkar contemptuously slog-swept a barely-turning White delivery over midwicket for four and drove him through cover, while Gambhir also attacked with delight. It took India 16 overs to take 27 runs from Clark; it took them four overs to strike the same amount off White, who was duly shelved and not seen again for the rest of the day.
Michael Clarke had a trundle and Simon Katich was given his first bowl of the series, although his major contribution was to antagonise Gambhir after comprehensively getting in the way of an attempted single. Words were exchanged and Billy Bowden inserted himself between Katich and Gambhir but the incident had no bearing on the final wash-up.
At a venue where India have won the past seven Tests a stumps total of 296 for 3 was precisely what Australia didn't want. They would hate to hear it, but it was an even worse outcome than the first day in Mohali, when India closed with 15 more runs but two fewer wickets in hand. Ponting has four more days to inspire his men.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo