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Australia's butter fingers

Brad Haddin provided the most attractive bookends to Australia's third day in Melbourne, spectacular catches diving across first slip in the opening over of the morning and again in the last of the afternoon. But bookends themselves tell you nothing; the most revealing material lies in the pages that sit in between. And on day three at the MCG most of it made unhappy reading for the Australians.

Virat Kohli scored 169. Ajinkya Rahane made 147. They both took on Mitchell Johnson and blunted his influence completely. They batted brilliantly, their 262-run partnership the sort that Australia might have expected from an Indian pair in Chennai or Mohali, but not down under. India scored 354 runs in the day, their run-rate of nearly four an over providing spectacular entertainment for the crowd.

Australia finished the day still 68 runs in front with two Indian wickets to claim. A draw will win them the series, so they remain in the stronger position. But it could have been so much better. Haddin's bookends only highlighted how sloppy the Australians were for the rest of the day at the MCG, where they dropped three straightforward chances to add to one that was grassed late on the second afternoon.

Neither of Haddin's extravagant takes should ever have happened. His first was to remove Cheteshwar Pujara from the second ball of the morning, and his horizontal dive was reminiscent of Rod Marsh's leaping take in front of Ian Chappell at first slip in the 1975 World Cup semi-final. But on day two, Haddin had given a life to Pujara on 12, when he misjudged a one-handed effort that he should have swallowed.

Pujara more than doubled his score from that drop, but 12 to 25 is not match-changing. Missing Kohli on 88 and allowing him to go on to 169 could be. That was Kohli's score when he edged Mitchell Johnson, and Shane Watson thrusting to his left at first slip dropped it. But it was Haddin's catch; he did not so much as move his feet yet could still nearly have grabbed it. Had he been on his toes it would have been easy.

So when Haddin hurled himself in front of slip in the final over of the day to repeat his earlier effort and catch Kohli off Johnson, it was hard not to wonder what might have been. Had Haddin moved properly when Kohli was 88, or had Watson got his hands cleanly to the ball when the wicketkeeper neglected to move, the total would have been 4 for 287. Instead the fourth wicket fell at 409.

But it was not the easiest chance put down by the Australians on this day. Rahane was let off on 70 when he prodded the most basic of catches back to the bowler Nathan Lyon, who casually put up his hands and fluffed the take. The new ball was due next over, and it was as if Lyon was simply going through the motions, not expecting to create an opportunity. Rahane more than doubled his score from then.

The debutant KL Rahul was also reprieved when his aerial flick off Lyon found twelfth man Peter Siddle running back from midwicket, but again what should have been a simple chance was put down. Rahul also more than doubled his score; fortunately for the Australians that only meant he moved from 1 to 3 before he was caught by Josh Hazlewood off the very next delivery.

Not so many years ago, the Channel Nine commentary team had a staple phrase when a catch was taken: "(Insert Australian player's name here) doesn't drop those!" And it was generally true, or at least through hindsight's rose-coloured glasses it seems that way. Sloppy fielding was the domain of opponents, not of the ultra-professional Australians. Less and less is that now the case.

In the UAE recently, Pakistan were sharp in the field and Australia, by the estimation of captain Michael Clarke at the end of the tour, dropped 11 catches in the two Tests. At the Gabba, Shaun Marsh notably grassed two catches when he got his hands into terribly awkward positions. They are basic errors, fundamental fumbles that can make the bowling look much less effective than it is.

"It could have been a totally different day, to be honest," Ryan Harris said after day three at the MCG. "But at the end of the day, it's not. That's the disappointing thing of the day. To drop those chances, we've got pretty high standards in our fielding, that was pretty disappointing the way we fielded today. No one means to drop catches but that was well below standard today.

"As a group I thought we bowled pretty well. The first hour was good, the second hour not so good. Then when we had that new ball I thought we bowled reasonably well. We created those chances. You can't give batsmen like Rahane and Kohli second chances, because they do what they did today."

Kohli agreed, and he feasted on Australia's bowling, particularly a sustained short spell from Johnson, later in the day after being given his life. He also noted that their ground fielding was less than high-class.

"They have set very high standards in the field," Kohli said. "Today was surprising to see them drop three catches, have so many misfields and have so many easy singles for us. I don't remember the last time I've seen them be inconsistent in the field. They have very high standards with slip catching and ground fielding. It might just be one of those off days."

Their efforts in the UAE suggest those off days are becoming more and more frequent. It is a worrying trend for the fielding consultant Greg Blewett, who was employed in August ahead of the UAE series. Blewett fits the mould that Darren Lehmann likes from his assistant coaches - former Test player, good bloke, well liked, even temperament.

But Blewett had done little formal coaching before this appointment, which followed a brief trial at the National Cricket Centre during the winter. The nomadic American fielding coach Mike Young had served with the Australians last summer. He might have watched these past two series with interest. He would have seen that in the UAE, and now in Melbourne, the Australians blew it.