Melbourne: Indifferent batting from India and an abject response by the Australian top order left the first Test tantalisingly poised after a helter skelter third day on which 15 wickets fell at the MCG.
The visitors and the hosts traded collapses on a track still offering a modicum of help to the bowlers, India slipping from 2 for 214 to 282 all out before Australia slumped to 4 for 27 thanks to Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma. It was a hole plugged only partially by the staunch efforts of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey, who was undefeated on 79 when the close arrived at 8 for 179, the lead standing at 230.
Rahul Dravid, bowled off second ball of the morning by the recalled and renewed Ben Hilfenhaus, completed his unhappy day by shelling the sort of slips catch he would expect to claim when Hussey advanced to R Ashwin on 69. Though Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon departed thereafter, it may yet prove a crucial drop.
Hussey and Ponting were both under enormous pressure for runs coming into this match, given their poor recent returns, but younger team-mates were grateful for their calming presence in a partnership of 115 after the tumult that marked the start of the second innings. Hussey's innings was particularly strong, counter-punching from the start to build some sort of lead.
India had earlier surrendered 8 for 68 to be halted 51 runs short of Australia's 333. Hilfenhaus followed up Dravid's defeat with the wickets of Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni and the dogged nightwatchman Ishant Sharma, while Siddle neutralised the threat of VVS Laxman and rounded things off by disposing of Ashwin for a useful 31.
The continuing flood of wickets was attributable to smart, full bowling but also poor batting, with David Warner, Ed Cowan and Shaun Marsh all guilty of vast misjudgements. Michael Clarke was less culpable, out to a corking delivery from Ishant. Ponting's dismissal was followed by another flighty innings from keeper Brad Haddin, who must be under severe scrutiny for his spot despite claiming five catches.
Starting out with a 51-run advantage, Warner and Cowan were unable to get themselves going in the manner of the first innings. Warner looked uncomfortable, tugging at the ball rather than timing it, and it was no great surprise when he dragged Yadav onto the stumps with an angled bat. Cowan had left the ball with great skill on Boxing Day, but two balls after Warner he would die by the sheathed sword, padding up to a Yadav delivery that straightened and as such having scant cause to complain about the lbw verdict.
Marsh evaded a pair, scoring his first Test runs in Australia, only to perish in a similarly ugly manner to Warner when he snicked a full, wide delivery from Yadav onto the stumps. After an outside edge in the first innings, an inside edge in the second, it was clear Marsh lacked Test match touch after injury and one Twenty20 knock.
At three down India had the scent, and it became a pungent whiff with the fall of Clarke to a beautifully-pitched delivery from Ishant that seamed back and removed the leg bail via the inside edge. Clarke's exit was all too swift, and echoes of Cape Town hung tangibly in the air.
Hussey and Ponting responded to their predicament with firm intent and attractive strokes, pulling, cutting and driving to extend the lead and take Australia past the accursed 47. Ponting was fortunate to survive Zaheer's lbw appeal from around the wicket when he was 15, replays indicating the ball had struck him in line and would have plucked out middle. Hussey's first boundary was an edge through the slips, but thereafter he was decisive and impressive, attempting to make amends for an awfully slim run of scores since a bountiful tour of Sri Lanka in September.
Tea came and went, and the partnership assumed significant proportions against bowling that remained diligent but with the backdrop of slackening field settings. Dhoni was intent on saving runs, and Hussey and Ponting were able to knock the ball into gaps consistently with the odd boundary. Both passed half-centuries, raising generous affirmation from another healthy crowd, this time 40,556.
Ponting's period of greatest peril is starting to resemble Shane Watson's when fit, falling somewhere between 50 and 100. Zaheer returned for a spell with the old ball and slanted across to draw a sliced drive and a catch in the gully. As he walked off, Ponting offered an unfussy wave of the bat to the MCG - who knows if he will be back to do so again.
Haddin sold his wicket dearly enough in the first innings, and did well with the gloves after an early dropped catch. But now he played another innings far too aggressive in the prevailing circumstances, essaying a handful of shots that weren't quite there before waving his bat brusquely at Zaheer and edging to second slip.
Hussey's innings might have ended soon after when he advanced and was beaten by a nicely dipping off break, but Dravid could not hold on to the edge. Siddle was unable to reprise his first innings, hanging his bat out at Yadav and being held well by Dhoni, diving in front of first slip. Lyon was granted a promotion in the batting order, perhaps to retain a right and left-handed union, but he had not scored when Ashwin's carrom ball pinned him in front of leg stump.
Dravid and Ishant had walked to the middle a little more than six hours before, their sights set on establishing a first-innings advantage. Hilfenhaus had been ineffective late on the second day, yet started things off on the third and enjoyed instant success. Dravid played the day's first delivery to mid-on, but the second slid subtly away from him to elude his defensive bat and flick off stump.
Laxman took guard on a ground where he has never enjoyed success, in marked contrast to the rest of Australia. This time he lingered 21 balls for two, before finally being undone by a Siddle delivery that shaped nicely away to catch an edge that Haddin pouched. Given the torment he has inflicted on them in the past, the Australians were understandably exultant.
Clarke only allowed three overs of Lyon's spin before recalling Hilfenhaus, and second ball the Tasmanian found the ideal line to draw Kohli's outside edge and grant Haddin another catch. Six wickets were down before the arrival of the second new ball.
Dhoni, so difficult to contain on Indian pitches, has shown vulnerability in foreign climes before, and there was a whiff of the England tour about his brief stay. Now using a fresh projectile, Hilfenhaus gave India's captain a trio of straight deliveries before floating one wider, with bounce.
An airy drive and a catch in the gully ensued, sinking the visitors deeper into the morning mire. Let down by his batsmen, Ishant finally lost patience, and swished at another outswinger. Zaheer Khan was not inclined to hang around it was not long before he was bowled by Pattinson, having an unsightly heave at a full-length ball. Ashwin and Yadav offered a cheeky last-wicket stand of 23 before Siddle nipped out the off spinner.