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Struggling to catch up

On paper, India's margin of defeat (47) in Hyderabad may seem like a small improvement after the 84-run loss at Kochi but the reality was that they were forced to play catch-up throughout the game. India lost the initiative during the early stages of both innings and, once the gap opened up, Australia did not allow them a look-in.

At both Bangalore, where they reduced Australia to 18 for 2, and Kochi, when Australia slumped to 8 for 2, India had managed to take early wickets despite conceding more than 300. At Hyderabad, however, Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan didn't take that early wicket and Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist gave Australia their first 50-run opening stand of the series. The rest simply built on that platform.

The Australian openers batted aggressively and were aided by loose bowling from India's new-ball pair. Zaheer erred on the fuller side and Hayden got stuck in, driving and hitting across the line through midwicket. The pitch was flat - Mahendra Singh Dhoni felt it was a 300 wicket - and neither Sreesanth nor Zaheer got much swing.

By the time Australia lost their second wicket, that of Hayden for 60, they had 112 on the board in 20.3 overs and were on track for 300. Then, though, Australia hit a sluggish patch for 10-odd overs. One reason was the bowling of Harbhajan, who turned in an improved performance in terms of economy and kept a tight line. He was helped by Yuvraj and Sachin Tendulkar, who bowled the fifth bowler's quota. Dhoni said they did a "great job" and the figures back him up - Yuvraj and Sachin initially bowled ten overs between them for 50 runs, Yuvraj's first six going for 28 runs

The batsmen, too, seemed to have stepped down a gear. Andrew Symonds, who was then batting along with Michael Clarke, said he was content to bide his time. He felt the pitches were getting slower, the ball was stopping before coming on to the bat and he wanted to hold his shots back until he was settled.

For a few overs, the momentum was with India. But it was to unravel swiftly; Harbhajan finished with 0 for 38 but his inability to make the breakthroughs took the pressure off the batsmen. Yuvraj was brought on for a seventh over and Symonds and Clarke, breaking the shackles, took 21 off it.

Australia had wickets in hand and scored 150 runs off the last 20 overs, more than doubling their score at the 30-over mark. India desperately needed a strong start to challenge 290 but were immediately put under pressure after a maiden opening over from Brett Lee. The openers had reached 10 for no loss before the batting imploded and three wickets fell in the space of two overs for three runs. It was the period when the match, as a contest, was finished.

Only Yuvraj Singh's hundred kept India's chase alive. It was his second century in as many matches at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium. In November 2005, he had counterattacked the South African bowlers on a lively pitch and scored a hundred to rescue India from the throes of 35 for 5 and reach 249. Today, he was under pressure from his first ball as the asking-rate climbed to over seven an over.

Yuvraj dominated a 95-run stand with Tendulkar but India needed at least two batsmen, if not more, to reach their target. They could have harboured victory hopes while Yuvraj remained but they kept taking two strides forward and three back because of wickets falling at regular intervals at the other end.

"We required partnerships at the top which did not happen," Dhoni said. "If we have wickets in hand we could have scored runs in the last 10-15 overs. When you lose early wickets it tends to become a catch-up job towards the end."

The talk of poor starts raises the question of Sourav Ganguly's absence from the team. Niranjan Shah, the BCCI secretary, said he was dropped because he didn't fit in with the team combination. Dhoni, however, said that "the team thought that he (Ganguly, who was suffering from a hamstring injury) should be rested for this match because anything can happen on the field and then we might have to rest him for more matches."

India have dug themselves into a massive hole, going 0-2 down in the series because they need to win all the four remaining games to clinch the series. With Australia in tremendous all-round form, the probability of that is receding quickly. Dhoni acknowledged that a tough series had become tougher. Unless India put Australia under pressure and manage to sustain it at Chandigarh, the task could be next to impossible.