On a day when the past, present and future of Indian cricket asserted themselves in contrasting manner, Australia were on a sticky wicket. They would pray that in the remaining three days, the top layer of the pitch doesn’t come off like that of their batting order did. For the hosts, who have been convincing winners in four of the six sessions so far, it's a question of probing further with the same relentlessness.
The way Australian bowlers struggled to extract anything from the 22-yard strip, it was clear their Indian counterparts too would have to make a great effort. That's exactly what Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma did before the unheralded Amit Mishra dealt the visitors two blows. It capped a fruitful day in office for the team, who was leading by example.
India needed a substantial partnership between Sourav Ganguly and Dhoni when nightwatchman Ishant fell in the fifth over of the morning. He was undone by a short-pitched ball, which started a spell of the same stuff for the remaining period of the first hour. Dhoni got one first-up and pulled it for four, but was in no position to play or duck when Lee hurled another one. So he just took it on his shoulder without showing any sign of discomfort that Lee's pace must have caused.
It sent out a message that aggression would be countered without taking a backward step and neither Ganguly nor Dhoni gave an inch away in terms of body language in the face of this barrage of short balls. They were helped significantly by the slowness of the pitch and it was surprising to see Australia stick to their plan despite seeing that it was not producing the desired results. The second new ball lost shine in the process.
Although the pitch was playing easy and the attack lacked bite, the batsmen still had to earn their runs. Ganguly hardly got the chance to unleash the drives that define his batting and was forced to play in an area where not many of his 7063 runs have come from. He had to play behind or in front of square on the leg side and these shots off the pads, which he had to keep down, showed he was equal to the task. That there were just eight fours in 102 showed how much he had to run.
Dhoni was a study in contrast. He has a peculiar technique, neither forward nor back, but devises his own ways of staying there and scoring runs.
After making his name as a batsman who likes to force the issue, he has mellowed down a lot according to demands of international cricket. But on Saturday he was in a mood to attack. Other than adding valuable runs to the tally, this approach was also a statement of intent — fight force with force — and Dhoni's strong shoulders and forearms helped him win the day's bout.
With Ganguly throwing it away after his century, India couldn't bat for as long as they would have liked. They had to use the new ball to their advantage and Zaheer made it count with a sharply incoming delivery that left him three out of three against Hayden in this series. Ishant was breathing fire after tea and after troubling Ricky Ponting a few times, got him with a fast one that cut back viciously.
Australia badly needed partnerships and each time they looked like stitching one together, Mishra stung. Showing the intelligence to make the batsmen lunge forward, which is essential on a surface like this, he was lucky to slip an innocuous one through the defence of Simon Katich.
But he did outthink Michael Clarke with a wrong one. There's a lot of cricket still to be played, but for Australia at the moment, it's time to play catch-up.