After the twin horrors of Chennai and Hyderabad, Australia seemed set for some northern comfort in Mohali when first their openers and then Steven Smith showed the necessary application to score runs in Indian conditions. But, despite a 139-run opening stand, Australia contrived to end the second day of the third Test on 273 for 7. India's bowlers were largely unexceptional, but even on a pitch that did nothing alarming, Australia's batsmen never quite imposed themselves on the game, leaving India in a comfortable position at stumps on Friday (March 15).
When Michael Clarke won the toss and chose to bat, he may have been surprised that India chose to leave out Harbhajan Singh at his home ground, bringing back Pragyan Ojha. Eventually, it mattered little as Ed Cowan and David Warner bedded down against Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Ishant, who did not display convincing rhythm, was guilty of not asking enough questions of the batsmen. Cowan, as is his wont, spent his early time at the crease leaving alone as many balls as possible, content to let Warner force the pace.
When spin was introduced, in the form of R Ashwin, in the 10th over of the innings, there was an immediate change in tempo, with Warner playing and missing as he was unsure just how much the ball would turn after bouncing. To his credit, Warner made the transition from tentative to assertive without missing a beat, and began to use his feet to the slow bowlers. Ashwin was the first to be picked off when Warner came down the track to drill the ball back past the bowler for a boundary.
When the two openers negotiated the extended first session - play began half an hour early to make up for the time lost on the rained-out first day - without being separated, with 109 on the board, India did not look like a team that had blanked the opposition out in the first two Tests. Ojha seemed to be afflicted by the same lack of confidence that made Harbhajan half the bowler he can be, and the fast bowlers lacked bite.
With the score on 139, Warner (71) lunged forward to defend Ravindra Jadeja, but could not get to the pitch of a ball that dipped late and the resultant edge ballooned off the pad for Mahendra Singh Dhoni to come forward and complete the catch.
Clarke, who promoted himself to No. 3, waltzed down the pitch off the first ball he faced, and was comprehensively beaten by Jadeja's flight and turn to be comfortably stumped. In the space of two balls, Australia had gone from being dominant to shaky, with an inexperienced middle order exposed far earlier than was absolutely necessary.
Philip Hughes's shocker of a tour continued, and though he spent some time at the crease, consuming 31 balls for 2 runs, he was all at sea against spin. Eventually, it was a tickle down leg against Ojha that accounted for Hughes. On this tour so far, Hughes has played 58 balls from Ashwin for 2 runs to be dismissed thrice, faced 18 balls from Jadeja for a solitary run and one dismissal and on the day Ojha's tally was 2 balls, no runs and a wicket. Harbhajan is the only spinner Hughes has failed to get out to, making five runs from four balls that he has faced. Overall, the picture is bleak, with Hughes having faced 82 balls of spin to score 8 runs and be dismissed five times.
While India should have turned the screws then and there, they did themselves no favours by dropping Cowan twice - Virat Kohli could not latch on to an edge at slip and Cheteshwar Pujara put down a simple offering at silly mid off - on 64 and 84. Fortunately for India, though, the misses were not as costly as they could have been, with Cowan more intent on crease occupation than run scoring. With a hard-earned century there for the taking, Cowan (86) offered yet another chance, edging Ashwin, and this time Kohli made no error.
Steven Smith, returning to the set-up as a No. 5 batsman after playing his initial Tests as a bowler who batted a bit, began aggressively, taking the aerial route to hit the spinners cleanly back down the ground. In the company of Brad Haddin, who was prepared to be aggressive when the ball warranted it, Smith was in the process of sparking a revival when a brace of unlikely wickets pegged Australia back.
Ishant, searching largely in vain for some reverse swing from a 94-over old ball, drew an inside edge from Haddin that sent the ball crashing into the stumps. Two balls later, Moises Henriques was bowled off his pad, and Australia were tottering at 244 for 6. Peter Siddle spent 14 nervy balls at the crease before a Jadeja slider put him out of his misery.
Smith, who remained unbeaten on 58, marked a strong return to Test cricket, but he will be the first to acknowledge that Australia, at 273 for 7, are some way away from safety.