Mohali: Australia's tour of horrors degenerated further, partly through their own inability to keep pace even with a sub-par Indian performance and partly through the recurrence of a back injury to Michael Clarke, the one batsman who has demonstrated the wherewithal to dominate the spinners. India, despite scores of 187 from Shikhar Dhawan and 153 from Murali Vijay, managed only 499, a lead of 91, but Australia's skipperless top order contrived to lose three wickets before the close on the penultimate day, leaving itself in real risk of losing a match that was reduced to four days after rain washed out the first day.
All eyes were on Dhawan when the day began, not merely because of the manner in which he had shredded Australia's bowlers on Saturday (March 16), but because the Sunday crowd at the Punjab Cricket Association stadium in Mohali sensed that they could be witnessing something historic. Unfortunately for Dhawan, a hard-handed defensive push off Nathan Lyon went straight to hand, Ed Cowan snapping up the offering at silly mid-off.
Dhawan's soft dismissal was followed by a spot of tough luck for Cheteshwar Pujara when he was adjudged lbw despite inside-edging Peter Siddle onto pad. With two wickets falling in quick time, the tempo of the innings changed dramatically. Where there was earlier hope that Dhawan's charge would be prolonged, it was now time to be watchful, and Sachin Tendulkar led this mission, giving the Australian bowlers the kind of respect they have scarcely earned on this tour. While Tendulkar was far from uncomfortable, he did not try to force the pace at any point, despite being in good enough form to play one of his trademark, aesthetically-perfect off drives for four off Mitchell Starc.
Vijay, who had blended into the background when Dhawan was inflicting pain on the opposition, continued his vigil, playing with assurance and composure. Although he was not averse to coming down the pitch to the spinner and lofting the ball over the on side when he picked the length early enough, Vijay's focus was clearly crease occupation. Together, Vijay and Tendulkar presided over a strangely serene passage of play in which only 92 runs were scored off 31.1 overs. While this was a perfectly acceptable rate of scoring for the longest version of the game, the fact that they were not more positive in their intent allowed Australia's bowlers the breathing room they were denied the previous day. With the run rate under control, Clarke had the luxury of turning to Steven Smith and was instantly rewarded, when a perfectly pitched legbreak caught Tendulkar's inside edge before popping up to short leg via pad. Smith, who has barely bowled in the current domestic season in Australia and had not picked up a wicket since his Test debut back in 2010, struggled to land the ball, but when he did, it proved good enough to result in a big scalp.
Vijay, who had pressed on to reach 153, becoming only the fifth Indian to register back-to-back scores of 150 or more, joining Vijay Hazare, Dilip Vengsarkar, Vinod Kambli and Virender Sehwag. When Vijay (153, 317b, 19×4, 3×6) was caught in front of the stumps by a ball that swung late and wickedly from Starc, India's hopes of shifting the game forward in aggressive manner received another blow. Starc, working with a new ball, continued to find swing that has been absent all series, and nailed Mahendra Singh Dhoni low and in front of the middle stump with a full delivery. Ravindra Jadeja did not fare much better, cleverly set up by Siddle. An inswinger to the left-hand batsman was followed by a ball that held its line and Jadeja obligingly nicked it to the keeper. At 427 for 6, India were in with a real possibility of throwing away the not insignificant advantage Dhawan had given them through his pyrotechnics.
Virat Kohli, who was not at his aggressive best and yet competent enough to ensure that the tail was not utterly exposed, compiled an unbeaten 67 even as Siddle bowled with genuine effort to pick up the seventh five-wicket haul of his career. India would have been disappointed to have only secured a lead of 91, but this feeling was quickly assuaged by David Warner who attempted to crash Bhuvneshwar Kumar through the offside and nicked a wide one to the wicketkeeper.
At 3 for 1 in the first over, the last thing Australia needed was an indisposed Clarke, but when the out-of-form Phil Hughes walked out to join Cowan, it was clear that all was not well. Cowan tried to grind out the bowling, but played down the wrong line to a Bhuvneshwar delivery that shaped in perfectly and Australia had lost their second wicket still 56 runs adrift. Smith, who had been mighty impressive in the first innings, was jumpy at the crease and became Bhuvneshwar's third victim as he played for inswing and lost his off stump. Hughes, who continued to look less than convincing, decided there was no point being caught in two minds and attacked the bowling, remaining unbeaten on 53 to take Australia to 75 for 3.
When the final day's play begins, though, India are the only team with a realistic chance of winning the game. For Australia, missing key players for different reasons, that's not the best position to be in with the series scoreline already reading 0-2.