Melbourne: Australia's batsmen scrambled to 6 for 277 against a shrewd and opportunistic India on day one of the Boxing Day Test, and would not have progressed that far without a meritorious debut from Ed Cowan in front of 70,068 spectators at the MCG.
Losing Michael Hussey to a decision that would have been reversed with the aid of technology - Cowan also had reason to query his exit - the hosts were still some way short of a substantial total by the close. Brad Haddin and Peter Siddle were established however, and their contributions will be critical when play resumes.
Cowan's 68, in 294 minutes and 177 balls, was no more or less than he had promised to deliver as a circumspect, organised opening bat. But its influence on proceedings was lessened by the others' failure to bat around him, save for an innings of 62 from Ricky Ponting that alternated between edgy and elegant.
India's captain MS Dhoni rotated his bowlers expertly, recovering from the hour after lunch when Ponting and Cowan had threatened to carry the day. India's refusal to accept the DRS also allowed the visitors to place pressure on the umpires Marais Erasmus and Ian Gould, achieving the desired result in the final session.
Zaheer Khan turned the day India's way with the removal of Michael Clarke and Hussey to successive, reverse-swinging balls, after Umesh Yadav demonstrated his knack for speed and wickets with a trio either side of a profligate post-lunch spell. R Ashwin accounted for Cowan in the following over and gained appreciable turn at times to suggest he will be a threat across this series.
Opening up after Clarke won a quite ambiguous toss, Cowan and David Warner walked to the middle under overcast skies to a surface the offered the promise of early seam to augment the swing offered by the atmosphere. First strike was taken by the debutant, and Cowan responded by playing out Zaheer's well-directed opening over with plenty of nerves but just as much good sense. His first run arrived in the second over with a tap wide of mid on, before Warner commenced with a streaky inside edge to the fine-leg boundary.
From this inauspicious beginning Warner was quickly into stride, cuffing a handful of boundaries in between sensible pushes and nudges around the ground's vast expanses. Zaheer moved the ball and Ishant Sharma bounced it, but Australia's openers negotiated their opening spells with as much confidence as could be expected. The introduction of Umesh prompted Cowan to unfurl one glorious straight drive amid his otherwise abstemious defence, and Warner followed up in the same over by biffing the bowler through cover then hooking uproariously into the crowd.
A brief rain delay broke the rhythm of the stand, and when the players returned Warner perished immediately, attempting to repeat his hook at Umesh and gloving gently behind to Dhoni. Umesh had his tail up, firing down his deliveries with plenty of speed, and had Marsh struck on the pad first up. Having played only one Twenty20 innings since his return to fitness after a painful back complaint that afflicted him in South Africa, Marsh did not look at ease, and to his seventh ball he walked too late into a drive and sliced it to gully.
Suddenly 0 for 46 had become two for the same score, and Ponting's arrival brought a crowd response that suggested both appreciation and trepidation for Australia's former captain. Off his second ball Ponting swivelled to hook a short ball, but was struck a stunning blow to the jaw. Ponting was still alert enough to side-foot the rebound away from his stumps, but it was another reminder of how his command over the bouncer has slipped ever since West Indies' Kemar Roach pinned him on the arm at Perth in 2009.
Through it all Cowan maintained his composure, cracking Ishant through the covers with some flourish to add a second boundary after taking a blow to the body from Umesh, and Ponting gradually began to find a little more equilibrium. He slipped over while pulling at Zaheer, but the ungainly follow-through was less important than the sight of the ball skimming to the backward square-leg boundary.
Resumption was delayed by further showers, and when it arrived India's bowlers lapsed in line, length and attitude. Cowan was granted the chance to gather momentum with a handful of boundaries, one a chancy cut over gully but the rest pleasingly fluent, and Ponting also took advantage of some wayward stuff from Umesh in particular. Swiftly the 50-run stand and the Australian 100 were raised, in a union between a Tasmanian living in Sydney (Ponting) and a New South Welshman renewed in Hobart (Cowan).
Some of Ponting's strokes were reprised from the pages of his regal best, one back foot punch off the toes from Ishant more than enough to get the crowd cooing. They were on their feet soon after as his half-century was raised, via a rather more ungainly slog sweep for three. The rain delayed the tea break and Cowan took his time to reach his own 50, but a nudge into the offside brought it in 120 new-ball-blunting balls.
Umesh returned to the attack for a spell near the interval, and found something approaching the vim of his morning burst. Ponting was unnerved by his first ball, rearing off a length, and dismissed by the third, which swerved away on a line just close enough to off stump for an uncertain batsman. VVS Laxman held the nick, the union was broken at 113, and Ponting's interminable wait for another Test century continued.
Clarke offered useful company to Cowan for a time, the pair adding 46 either side of the interval. India responded by tightening up, and only four runs had been accrued from three overs when Zaheer beat Clarke's outside edge with a delivery that zipped away, then forced a cuff onto the stumps from the next when the batsman shaped to cut far too close to his body.
The sin of Clarke's dismissal for 31 was compounded next ball, Hussey fending at a short-pitcher from Zaheer that passed close to, but did not appear to touch, bat or glove on the way through to Dhoni. The umpire Erasmus intuited an edge and raised his finger, and with no DRS recourse Hussey had to go.
While Haddin averted the hat-trick, Cowan now let his guard down, cutting impatiently at Ashwin and was adjudged by Gould to have offered the thinnest of edges to Dhoni. Hot-spot showed no evidence of contact, adding another unhappy chapter to the saga of technology and its inconsistent use. Batting as though they were aware of the total's inadequacy, Haddin and Siddle dug in, and eluded a tight lbw appeal each. They will face a refreshed India in the morning.
Ishant and Zaheer had both been ruled fit and were joined in the attack by Umesh and Ashwin, who won the spinner's spot ahead of Pragyan Ojha. Australia's line-up was confirmed two days ago and there were no late changes, with Ben Hilfenhaus in for Mitchell Starc and Cowan named at the top of the order.
Australia's 427th Test cricketer, Cowan was presented with his baggy green by Dean Jones, before the toss. Clarke's decision to bat was risky given Australia's struggles on Boxing Day last year, when England routed them for 98.