The Australians will be as unhappy as India are relieved at the end of the opening day of their Test series at Mohali. A day that began badly and threatened to get immeasurably worse ended in joy as India pegged Australia back to 224 for five.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni lost a vital toss and Australia’s top order appeared in prime position to bed down and score big on a pitch that offered nothing to bowlers of any kind. Still, India had a chance to strike early, when a tentative Shane Watson poked at Zaheer Khan’s second delivery of the day, only to see Virender Sehwag put down the straightest of chances.
Zaheer’s luck improved when Simon Katich played all over a straight one and was trapped in front. Watson, however, seemed determined to cash in on the reprieve he was given, and gleefully accepted the second slice of luck that came his way when he edged Pragyan Ojha to Dhoni.
Ricky Ponting, determined to better his poor record in India, started aggressively, unfurling the pull when the ball was short and going well back into his crease to play forcing shots through point.
India’s bowlers conspired to release the pressure, giving away too many easy singles and their cause was not helped when Ishant Sharma pulled up short after bowling 7.4 overs, limping off in the second session not to return for the rest of the day.
Before the game, Ponting had emphasised the need for partnerships, and led from the front, adding 141 with Watson for the second wicket before haring off on a non-existent tight single. Suresh Raina, running in from mid-wicket, picked the ball up and threw down the stumps in one motion, and that moment signalled a change in fortunes.
Ojha, wheeling away tirelessly, made it difficult for Watson to score, and his remarkable figures of 31-12-39-0 helped Dhoni wrest control of the game. Michael Clarke tried to break the shackles, but an ill-judged cut shot off Harbhajan gave Rahul Dravid, at slip, his 197th Test catch.
As hard as Watson battled in hot, trying conditions, Zaheer stamped his authority on the day’s proceedings, returning for a late spell of reverse swing so devastating that Australia’s batsmen had no answers.
Mike Hussey was nailed in front of the stumps by an in-ducker and Marcus North made the fatal error of shouldering arms to a delivery without quite knowing which way the ball would swing.
Zaheer initial grimace turned into a well-earned grin and Dhoni pointed out that the off bail had been dislodged when the ball grazed the stumps and North was gone for a duck.
Tim Paine survived a frighteningly clever passage of reverse swing bowling and eventually edged Zaheer, only for Dhoni to notch up his second drop of the day, failing to collect the wobbling delivery cleanly.
Exhausted, battered but undefeated, Watson batted through the day for 101, and his is the wicket India will want early on the second morning.