New Delhi: Often, the most shambolic pitches end up producing the most fascinating cricket. It was no different at the Feroz Shah Kotla on a gripping Saturday, a powder-puff of a surface making cricket a bit of a lottery but also making for absorbing viewing.
The cricket wasn't necessarily of the highest quality, but there was no shortage of action, drama and tension on Day 2 of the final Test. Once again, the pendulum swung like a yo-yo and by stumps hadn't rested decisively on any one side, keeping both India, who must bat last on this extraordinary pitch that has tested batsmen and umpires alike, and Australia very much interested.
First for the bare facts. Australia kicked on from their overnight 231 for 8, and batted on for a further 41 minutes in the morning while adding 31 vital runs to finish on 262. Peter Siddle completed his maiden Test fifty, R Ashwin picked up a five-for for the ninth time in only his 16th game, and Pragyan Ojha became the joint third-fastest Indian bowler to 100 Test wickets.
That was, however, only the appetiser before the main course, served up by Nathan Lyon (5/94), the offspinner who kept Australia, often snarling, more than occasionally ill-tempered, in the hunt despite Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara, India's latest opening pair, putting on 108. Lyon made the most of the variable bounce and generous turn to fire out wickets at regular intervals and India appeared to have frittered away the advantage provided by the openers when they slipped to 210 for 6.
Fortunately for them, Ravindra Jadeja chose the perfect time to make his best Test score, of 43, until being sent on his way cruelly by Richard Kettleborough, the umpire who has been a steadfast not-outer. By then, Jadeja had put on 44 for the seventh wicket with Ashwin, on the back of which India finished on 266 for 8, just four ahead after Lyon picked up Ashwin off what turned out to be the last delivery of the day.
It was a day of several sterling performances, no one outstanding but many players playing key roles in leaving the match poised at a razor's edge. Australia's hero was Lyon, summarily dropped after the first Test but who sent down 22 unchanged overs in his first spell in taking the wickets of Pujara, Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar and Ajinkya Rahane. Lyon's challenge was to not get carried away on a track offering him so much assistance, and it was a challenge he met with aplomb, forcing India's batsmen to dig deep in their bid to get as close to Australia's tally as possible.
Vijay and Pujara started decently enough, always aware that the ball with their number on it might be round the corner but determined not to allow that to play on their minds. Vijay was the less fluent, but his determination to make recent good form count and get his team off to a good start was commendable. Pujara, batting like a dream even in an unfamiliar role as opener, was the more attractive and authoritative as suddenly, it appeared as if the pitch held few demons.
Australia's quicker bowlers bowled their hearts out. James Pattinson and Mitchell Johnson were both quick, seeking to exploit uneven bounce, while Peter Siddle kept things tight and plugged away, but while they did trouble the openers from time to time, success wasn't forthcoming. What Vijay and Pujara did extremely well was to put the loose balls away, because the conditions almost demanded a positive mindset.
Lyon wasn't brought on until the 20th over, by which time India had raced away to 78, and things immediately began to happen. The ball was turning, jumping, scooting through; the puffs of dust became more pronounced, the appeals more regular and vociferous, the close-in catchers more and more interested. Something had to give, and it did when Pujara played inside the line to an offspinner – like Siddle had done to Ashwin in the morning – and lost his off peg.
Reinvigorated, Australia were all over India. Lyon had fallen into excellent rhythm, operating mainly from round the stumps and having worked out the ideal pace through the air for optimal returns. He winkled out Kohli, pushed up to No. 3, in a trice and put Tendulkar through a searching examination shortly before tea, distinctly unlucky that Kettleborough ruled in the batsman's favour when Tendulkar missed a sweep and seemed to have been trapped plumb in front.
Post tea, Tendulkar looked in supreme touch even as Vijay was undone by a beast from Siddle that exploded off a crack and took glove on its way to Matthew Wade. Rahane never looked the part, eventually gloving Lyon to leg slip, and Tendulkar had no answer to a delivery that skidded through and kept low as Lyon got on a roll.
At 180 for 5, it was advantage Australia, but Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Jadeja gradually levelled things out with a rapid stand of 30, marked by bold strokeplay, brazen running and tardy Australian fielding. Dhoni fell against the run of play, swat-pulling Pattinson to Shane Watson in front of square leg, but Jadeja continued to flourish, suggesting that more Test runs can be expected of his willow in future.
His mastery of Lyon was complete when he twice smacked him over his head in as many deliveries, then rocked back to cut him when the offie pitched one short. That forced Watson, impressive in his first day on the field as captain, to turn to Glenn Maxwell, and with Kettleborough in an obliging mood, Australia made a crucial dent late into an extended day. Ashwin's wicket was the icing on the cake, all but making this a second-innings shootout.