Impressive Australia draw level
It was India's game to lose after they restricted Australia to a par total of 250 on a good batting pitch, especially after the fiery start provided by Virender Sehwag. However, Australia won the vital moments during the chase to level the series in Mohali. Like in Vadodara, Harbhajan Singh and Praveen Kumar threatened to pull off a heist; like in Vadodara they failed.
It was a roller-coaster of a chase and whenever India appeared to be getting ahead, Australia fought back with a vengeance. It wasn't necessarily great bowling that did the trick but it was disciplined enough to force mistakes from under-pressure batsmen.
India were off to a cracking start. Sehwag looted 30 runs from 14 deliveries from Mitchell Johnson but no one took ownership of the chase and India slowly lost their way. The first turning point came when Ricky Ponting introduced spin in the 17th over. Nathan Hauritz stuck in his second over, earning an lbw decision against Sachin Tendulkar but the ball appeared to be missing leg stump.
The second blow occurred in the 24th over when Ponting fired a direct hit from cover to run out Yuvraj Singh. MS Dhoni took the score to 134 before he became the fifth wicket to fall, trying to clip a harmless delivery from Doug Bollinger down the leg side. Raina didn't last long, cleaned up by Hauritz when he failed to connect with an attempted dab to third man and finally, Ravindra Jadeja ran himself out, attempting a non-existent single.
There would have been a moment of apprehension for Ponting when Harbhajan and Praveen played cameos but Shane Watson, who leaked runs against the same pair in Vadodara, redeemed himself today. Harbhajan opted for the batting Powerplay after Jadeja's exit and pushed the score to 204 but fell, scooping a return catch to Watson, who later induced Praveen to edge behind. Game over.
How did India lose this one though? Sehwag and Tendulkar had provided them the ideal start and though Tendulkar's dismissal was vital, even then, India held the advantage. Or so it seemed. Dhoni and Yuvraj, the heroes from the last game, were still in, the wicket was still batting-friendly and the bowling wasn't too threatening.
This is where the Australia, battered and bruised with injuries, showed their famed fighting spirit. They needed a moment of inspiration and it came from their captain. Ponting swooped in on a push from Dhoni at short cover and swung around to hit a direct hit at the striker's end to catch Yuvraj short of the crease. It was the spark Australia were looking for and they began to hustle the Indians on the field. The fielding was sharp and the bowling, if not spectacular, was tight.
They still needed a slice of luck to swing things decisively in their favour and they got it when Bollinger returned for his second spell in the 32nd over. It appeared to be a harmless delivery, bouncing down the leg side, but Dhoni nicked the attempted glance to the keeper.
Suddenly, the momentum had shifted and India's lower order was put under severe pressure. An alert Ponting kept making the right moves; with two left-handers Raina and Jadeja in the middle, he brought in the offspinner Hauritz for another spell. Hauritz took out a nervous Raina in the very first over and Ponting made yet another move that almost backfired on him. He gave the ball to Johnson, perhaps hoping that the errant bowler would redeem himself, but Harbhajan and Jadeja slammed a couple of boundaries. However, the pressure got to Jadeja, who was run out by who else but Ponting, and the chase had all but derailed.
The final margin of victory - 24 runs - was all the more surprising because Australia appeared to have lost the advantage after being restricted to a par total. Four Australian batsmen went past 40 but none carried on for a big score and the innings meandered at times, especially in the last ten overs where they scored only 49 runs. Ponting and Watson couldn't build on their promising partnership and the same fate befell Michael Hussey and Cameron White's association.
White played responsibly to keep Australia in the game. He has a reputation for powerful shots, but adapted his approach and scored in singles and twos. The big hits have eluded him so far in the series, reducing him to being merely a useful contributor rather than one who can take the game away from the opposition. His best shot was a well-adjusted short-arm slog sweep against Yuvraj Singh: He leaned forward to seemingly push it away for a single but at the last minute just stretched out to swat it high over midwicket. He went on to unfurl more skilful shots, when he backed away a couple of times against Harbhajan to loft inside-out against the turn, but for the main part, he drove and flicked for singles to rotate the strike.
He found solid support in Hussey and the duo added 73 runs for the fourth wicket with the left-hander playing another typical innings: he was calmness personified, pushing the ball into gaps for singles and collecting an odd boundary with a cover drive or a sweep. Occasionally, he charged out to the spinners to loft them over the in-field and one such stroke off Yuvraj sailed over wide long-on for six. However, he too fell after getting a start, pulling Yuvraj straight to deep midwicket.
Australia's task was made harder by the discipline of all the bowlers except Ishant Sharma. The new-ball bowlers, Praveen and Ashish Nehra, found enough movement to keep the top order quiet and both returned to choke the batsmen in the end overs. The spinners, too, found enough bite to cover up for Ishant's wayward spells. Harbhajan put in his best performance of the series, slowing up the pace and flighting on off and middle stump line. Harbhajan tried with the bat too but it was always going to be a tough for him to pull off the improbable.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo