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Australia slip well behind India in old-ball duel

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Cummins takes Test into fifth day with India on the brink (1:30)

The Australia No. 8 struck an unbeaten 61 as Australia finished day four on 8 for 258, needing 141 more for an improbable victory (1:30)

When India took the new ball late on day four at the MCG, they hoped to end the Test match before an extended close.

That Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon not only survived it but scored freely spoke to a wider truth about this series, that is being won by India as much for what their fast bowlers are doing with the old ball as what Australia's pacemen are not.

Australia's troubles this summer can be largely attributed to a couple of high-profile names missing from the top of their batting order, but another telling tale is emerging - put simply, India's pace bowlers have been effectively twice as successful as Australia's once the ball has grown older than 40 overs old. Whatever the many unknowns and secrets still circling around the Newlands scandal and its aftermath, there can be no denying the team led by Tim Paine this summer is less incisive with the old ball than that led by Steven Smith last summer.

To watch Paine's team struggle on consecutive days to take advantage of the traditional concept of batting getting easier in Australia once the Kookaburra has aged was to recognise that India's planning and skill with the ball has been of a very high standard. At the same time a former advantage for the hosts, as demonstrated by the 2017-18 Ashes series, has apparently been lost in their duel with the world's No. 1 side.

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3:42

One of the best Indian attacks I've seen - Lyon

The Australia offspinner heaps praise on Pat Cummins and sheds light on the fight ahead of the team on day five

Statistical analysis by ESPNcricinfo can reveal that for pace bowlers from overs 41 to 80, India's collective of Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav have claimed 15 wickets at 22.00, with a strike rate of a wicket every 52.73 balls, whereas in the same period the Australian seamers - Mitchell Starc, Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Marsh - have collected a mere six wickets at 46.16 and a strike rate of 102.00.

By contrast, the hosts have excelled with a newer ball (less than 40 overs old) in their hands, reaping 21 wickets at 18.33 and a strike rate of 48.71, comfortably clear of India's 14 wickets at 32.42 and 74.14 balls per wicket. These numbers have underlined traditional Australian characteristics, preferring to search for outside edges and wickets when the ball is new before things get easier, though also showing how the fast men tend to sit in a more supporting role alongside the spin of Nathan Lyon at that point.

However it is a marked change from what took place a year ago in the 2017-18 Ashes series, when Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins were the dominant performers in the series and vastly more effective than England with an old ball in hand. In that encounter, Australia snapped up 19 wickets from overs 41 to 80 at 30.73 and 68.37 balls per wicket as opposed to the visitors' 11 at 43.36 and 106.91.

Asked about this apparent gap between what India have been able to achieve in relation to Australia, but also the contrast between this summer and the previous one, Lyon cited the visitors' quality use of the seam of the ball, and also mounting fatigue among his team-mates, though noting how strong a match and series Cummins in particular has enjoyed.

"I think the Indians, their fast-bowling attack have really stood the seam up really well and they've been able to get a fair amount of swing," Lyon said. "I think we've had to bowl a lot of overs, and I think fatigue could possibly play a role in that, but I know the bowling attack in the Australian change room, I know how hard they're working as well and they'll get their rewards soon.

"I thought Pat Cummins was absolutely exceptional this Test match, he keeps getting better and better each and every day. Pat in my eyes is an incredible bloke, a great guy but a great cricketer as well. It's just been brilliant to see where he started from to where he's at now. I think he's got a hell of a long career ahead of him, he'll be one special cricketer."

India's bowling coach, Bharat Arun, cited the extensive background all Indian pace bowlers have in unsympathetic home conditions as a major reason for their ability to capitalise on movement with the older ball.

"Most Indian bowlers back home when we play domestic cricket they use the old ball very well because in India and the subcontinent the new ball doesn't move much and then most of the wickets are conducive to spin so the fast bowlers, the only way they can make an impression is if they can learn to move or reverse the old ball and so that's been it.

"I think the domestic structure in India has really helped these fast bowlers evolve. We really focus on what we can do and I thought the Indian bowlers did an exceptional job, so they executed the plans perfectly, and that's why I have no complaints."

As well as Cummins and Lyon batted in the closing overs, a search for 141 runs from the final two wickets to win the Melbourne Test is only in the realm of very distant possibility, and the spin bowler conceded that the damage had been done in the first innings. "Obviously first-innings runs, it comes down to that in pretty much any Test match. If you can get first-innings runs you've got yourself ahead of the game," Lyon said.

"Unfortunately we missed that, now our backs are up against the wall and Pat and I and Josh have to come out tomorrow and we're going to fight. We've got to show a lot of pride and go out there and fight our backsides off and show how much it means to wear the baggy green cap. I guarantee that Pat, myself and Josh will definitely do that tomorrow."

If the mounting body of statistical evidence is any indication, Australia may have the chance to get closer than some might think, but India will know that the ageing of the Kookaburra ball may not necessarily be a source of worry for them, as wickets have generally followed.