New Delhi: All tour long, Australia have found ways and means of shooting themselves in the foot when confronted with the turning ball and a surface that has assisted the spinners, if only slightly. The strip at the Kotla on Friday, day one of the final Test, resembled a third-day track – at best – and, despite having the first use of the surface for the fourth time in as many Tests, Australia did themselves no favours whatsoever with a patchy batting performance.
Not unexpectedly, Michael Clarke sat the game out due to a back injury, paving the way for Shane Watson to lead Australia out in a Test match for the first time. Watson did his side a massive favour by calling correctly and Australia did move into a position of promise, the second-over dismissal of David Warner notwithstanding, but familiar demons resurfaced in the immediacy of the lunch break to allow India, powered by R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, to once again wrest the initiative.
Through a combination of extraordinarily poor stroke election, probing bowling and a unique brand of instinctive captaincy that has stood Mahendra Singh Dhoni in wonderful stead over the years, India scythed through the Australian middle order, reducing them from 106 for 2 to 136 for 7 in 126 deliveries. But, in keeping with the unabated swing of the pendulum that was a huge characteristic of the first day, Australia launched a late fightback spearheaded by Steve Smith and Peter Siddle to go to stumps at 231 for 8.
Smith, playing with uncharacteristic restraint, and Phillip Hughes, having decided that he was better off playing his shots, especially against the quicker bowlers, were the only top order batsmen apart from the adhesive Ed Cowan who looked the part in front of a disappointingly sparse gathering at the Kotla. Otherwise, the specialist batsmen once again looked out of their depth, trying to manufacture strokes and hit their way out of trouble when application and commitment – as Siddle and James Pattinson showed late in the day – would have been a more prudent and rewarding option.
Ishant Sharma got India off to the perfect start imaginable, forcing a second loose waft to a delivery wide outside off from Warner in as many innings in the second over of the match to put Virat Kohli, at second slip, in business. Right from the start, it was obvious that this was far from an ideal Test match pitch. Puffs of dust began to make an appearance as the ball repeatedly disturbed the top of the dry surface, and, if Australia managed to survive, it was only because India’s bowlers were less than disciplined.
Hughes began with a flurry of boundaries, throwing his bat at anything wide outside the off stump and playing some pleasing strokes through mid off, while Cowan was typically restrained, his primary objective occupation of the crease rather than run gathering. Cowan's obduracy complemented Hughes's adventurism; Hughes accounted for two-thirds of the second-wicket stand of 67 when Ishant produced a beast of an over to knock the No. 3 over.
Three deliveries after pinging Hughes on the grill with a snorter, Ishant delivered a ball that hastened into the left-hander off the pitch. Hughes, still on the mental back foot, failed to get his front foot forward and merely guided the ball on to his leg stump, undone as much by his own uncertainty as Ishant's intelligence.
Watson and Cowan scored briskly enough to take Australia to 94 for 2 at lunch, but within 15 minutes of resumption, the game sprang to life. Ashwin, until then operating from round the stumps, went over at Dhoni's urging and elicited a tame sweep from Cowan, the ball beating the stroke, going behind his legs and castling him. Dhoni chose that precise moment to weave his magic, alternating between Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja at one end even as he persisted with Pragyan Ojha, hesitant, uncertain and too short all day long, at the other.
Jadeja produced a beauty that spun across the face of the advancing Watson's bat to set up a simple stumping, then made way for Ashwin who accounted for Matthew Wade, one of five changes to the Australian playing XI. Glenn Maxwell played an atrocious hoick and Mitchell Johnson shouldered arms to an Ashwin carrom ball, then stood in utter disbelief before being told by the umpire that the ball had crashed into his off stump.
The end appeared nigh, but Australia showed rare – from a series perspective – spunk and courage. Smith, by nature an attacking batsman, kept his instincts firmly in check for long periods, while Siddle was almost entirely becalmed for the first hour of his innings. Slowly, painstakingly, they rebuilt the innings while adding 53, India suddenly short of ideas as the partnership gathered reasonable proportions.
Out of nowhere, Ashwin – by a distance India's best bowler again – produced a sharp offbreak for Ajinkya Rahane, the debutant, to take a sharp catch at short-leg and get rid of Smith. Pattinson survived a perhaps justified shout for leg before off Ashwin before he had scored, then continued Australia's fightback in Siddle's company. The pair had put on 42 for the unfinished ninth-wicket stand when stumps were drawn, hauling Australia out of the woods even if it was India who had the better of the day's exchanges.