Australia face stiff ask to level series
It was almost farcical. If the session between lunch and tea had set up Australia's chances of squaring the Border-Gavaskar trophy, the third undid that in a puzzling manner. Australia had decisively wrested back the momentum in a thrilling afternoon session, dislodging a century opening stand and then running through India's middle order, only to let it slip with some bizarre tactics in the final session.
Instead of returning to the fast bowlers - whose ability to reverse the ball had India in trouble before tea - Ricky Ponting employed part-time spin and military medium to up the over rate. It only created breathing room for India, with a 108-run stand between Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh helping the score to 295. Chasing 382, Australia's openers took 13 off the first over, but that would mean little to India at the moment.
If Australia lost the plot, it was in the final session. They came out a different team, with Ponting not calling on Shane Watson, who impressed with two wickets after lunch, or Brett Lee. Cameron White's first over went for 12 and Ponting, worried about a flagging over-rate, turned to Michael Hussey's innocuous slow medium-pace. It was rather odd, given that Australia needed four wickets. Even stranger was the time Ponting often took to change bowlers and set fields. Whatever the true reason, it only aided India's cause.
Dhoni and Harbhajan added 108 in 27.2 overs. Dhoni's weapon of choice was the sweep from outside off stump - one shot rocketed for four before anyone could move - and there were also fierce pulls when the spinners dropped short. He cramped up but still relied on strong wrists to collect 55, an innings cut short by a smart catch at silly point off Jason Krejza, who finished his debut Test with figures of 12 for 358.
Harbhajan's contribution was a busy and very handy 52 - his second fifty of the series, and fourth against Australia - which comprised nudges, sweeps, and a textbook cover drive for four. He was bowled by a gem from Watson, who finally made an appearance 26.1 overs into the session, and cleaned up the tail to take 4 for 42. Until Watson's excellent spell, India had dominated the session.
This was in stark contrast to the manner in which Australia seized the afternoon after failing to take a wicket in the morning. The first session had been one of steady accumulation, interrupted now and then with a few audacious strokes from Virender Sehwag. The Australian bowlers kept the ball well up to the bat and, although consistent, they appeared to lack the firepower needed on this batting pitch. Sehwag and M Vijay had put together a century stand, but this was overshadowed by a dramatic collapse of six wickets for 50 runs between lunch and tea. Sehwag, resuming after lunch on 59, had launched Krejza's first over for 14, including a six over long-off and a four over the umpire. The total had reached 116 when Vijay, on 41 from 81 balls, was trapped lbw by a cutter from Watson.
Watson then snapped up Rahul Dravid for 3, meaning the batsman's average of 17.14 was his second-lowest in a Test series, just better than his 15.50 in three matches against Australia in 1999-00.
More powerful sweeps and effortless punches past mid-on had taken Sehwag to 92 before Lee dismissed him. Sehwag's attempt to glance a short delivery off his hips was well snapped up by Brad Haddin. That dismissal made Lee the highest wicket-taker for Australia against India in Tests.
Those three wickets changed the complexion of the innings. Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman were patient, hardly playing a shot in anger, and the momentum remained with Australia. Watson impressed after lunch because he made the batsmen play a lot more, while Lee upped his speed fractionally and used the bouncer well. What stood out was the amount of reverse-swing Watson and Lee achieved. Watson had the ball moving both ways, while Lee primarily got it to curve out.
It was spin, however, which captured the next wicket, at 163 for 3. Lured forward by Krejza's teasing length, Laxman inside-edged onto leg stump for a 34-ball 4. What happened next was stunning. Sourav Ganguly walked out to plenty of cheer in his last international innings, took guard, and was out first ball. Shaping to turn a flighted delivery off his pads, he got a leading edge back to the bowler. It was a tame end to the career of the most fascinating modern-era Indian player. Krejza didn't achieve his hat-trick, but Australia ended the session with the run out of Tendulkar, inexplicably searching for a risky single to the penultimate ball.
What transpired after the interval was quite something else, and Australia now find themselves with 369 to win.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo