Two withering spells of fast bowling, one from the lanky Ishant Sharma in the first session, and the second from Ben Hilfenhaus in the dying light ensured that the first Test of this series rested on the thin end of the proverbial razor’s edge. India, chasing 216, still need 161, and Australia will feel that only Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni stand between them and a 1-0 lead.
The startling spell was Ishant’s, sandwiched between less distinguished efforts from the same bowler. All of a sudden, with the lunch break approaching, Ishant got his line and length spot on, hurrying accomplished batsmen and inducing panic among players known for their poise.
Shane Watson was unlucky to drag a long-hop onto his stumps, but Ricky Ponting had only himself to blame when, four balls later, he hooked Ishant straight to Suresh Raina at square-leg.
Off the next ball, Ishant could have made it three in an over, when he had Michael Clarke caught at short midwicket, but umpire Billy Bowden suspected that Ishant had overstepped. When he checked with third umpire Sanjay Hazare, India’s worst fears were reconfirmed.
Fortunately, though, the price they paid was minimal as Clarke could do little more than glove Ishant to the keeper when he took his eye off the ball banged in short. A passage of play where Ishant’s figures read 3-2-8-3 meant India had every chance of closing Australia down early. But Simon Katich and Mike Hussey teamed up to begin the repair work.
Where pace had won the first session, spin ruled the second, as Katich feathered an edge to the keeper off Pragyan Ojha and Hussey was unlucky to be adjudged lbw by Ian Gould as the Harbhajan Singh delivery had clearly pitched well outside the leg stump.
Left with 216 to chase — and India have managed 200 or more only twice against the Aussies, once in Bombay in 1964 and then in Adelaide in 2003 — India’s top order did their best to show that there was life in this Mohali pitch yet.
Gautam Gambhir went for a duck, Bowden doing the damage, missing a healthy inside edge when upholding an energetic lbw appeal from Hilfenhaus.
Rahul Dravid, fluent, fleetfooted and assured in the first innings, poked tentatively at Doug Bollinger, reprising his dismissal of the first innings.
At 31 for 2, the chase looked damaged, but not dead, for Virender Sehwag was still at the crease, although severely handcuffed by Australia’s repeated short-pitched bowling. Hilfenhaus clearly had a brief to run in and give it all, and even when the ball bounced well over the keeper and raced away for 5 wides, the fast bowler did not alter his strategy.
And it paid rich dividends when Sehwag eventually had enough of being dictated to and tried to glide a short, wide delivery over the infield, only to find Hussey at gully.
Suresh Raina, a perennial suspect against the short stuff, fended to the slips and when India ended the day on 55 for 4, it became clear that it would take something special on the final day to keep defeat at bay.