India entered this Domain Test Series bearing the expectation that they might never face better prospects of creating history by defeating Australia on their home turf.
And needing six wickets while holding a 218-run buffer heading into tomorrow’s final day pf the campaign opener in Adelaide, it might also be ventured they have rarely held a stronger Test-match hand in territory where they’ve won just five matches in more than 70 years.
Yet their path to victory remains blocked by Australia’s last recognised batting pair Shaun Marsh (31no) and Travis Head (11no) upon whose shoulders rests the equally unlikely responsibility of finding their team a remarkable win, or the bravest of draws.
Either of those would represent a great escape given the dominance that India have slowly established over the past two days of a tightly fought contest.
And provide some temporary relief from the searching scrutiny again focused on Australia’s top-order batting, and particularly the tenure of opener Aaron Finch.
For the second time in three days, Finch found himself cast as lightning rod for a batting line-up weathering more than its quota of incoming storms.
Having seen his stumps flattened like a beach hut in a typhoon on Friday morning, the novice Test opener found it was his grasp of technology more so than technique that was called into question on the stroke of tea today.
Finch had reached 11 in a 38-run opening stand with debutant Marcus Harris when his forward prod against India’s trump card Ravi Ashwin saw the ball loop gently into the gloves of wicketkeeper, Rishabh Pant.
England umpire Nigel Llong upheld India’s appeal for a catch, and Finch’s obvious uncertainty as to whether or not it had brushed bat or glove saw him consult Harris, which suggested a call for third-umpire review was imminent.
However, that lack of clarity among the Australia pair saw them opt not to query the decision which, given it had been adjudged out on-field, was defendable given Llong’s ruling could only have been overturned upon definitive evidence being tendered to show he had erred.
But that did not prevent Finch from being savaged by commentators and punters alike for his oversight, a sin seemingly compounded by his squandering of the good fortune that had blessed him at the outset of Australia’s innings.
Not-so-fresh from his ignominious third-ball duck in the first dig, Finch was fired out lbw from the second delivery he faced today, a decision that he judiciously chose to review.
Even before the video referee had heard expert evidence – which would ultimately have vindicated the on-field call – the case was turfed out upon confirmation that India quick Ishant Sharma had overstepped, and the delivery was illegitimate.
After three earlier brushes with DRS technology over the previous 24 hours, all of which fell in India’s favour, Australia had due reason to believe fortune might be belatedly swinging toward them.
It would prove a fleetingly illusory premise.
Finch’s lapse in awareness was followed by a couple of equally culpable shortfalls in acumen as Harris (26) and Usman Khawaja (8) surrendered their wickets, and Australia’s distant hopes of an unlikely win faded further in the afternoon sun.
Harris was justifiably filthy with himself when he aimed a cut shot at a delivery angled into him that brought only a top-edge to the keeper, while Khawaja was undone by a combination of Ashwin’s canny spin and his own stretched patience.
Australia’s No.3 had struggled to settle throughout his 42-ball stay and found runs elusive, so he advanced to a flighted Ashwin offering in the hope of clubbing it down the ground.
But he failed to counter the turn and instead sliced a catch to deep cover.
It was the capacity of India’s bowlers to constrict Australia’s scoring options that brought the wicket of Peter Handscomb in the final hour, after he became becalmed and tried to execute a pull shot that struck high and the bat and limped to mid-wicket.
At that point, Australia were 4-84 and no certainty to take the Test into its final stanza.
From day’s start, Australia captain Tim Paine and his men had found themselves wedged in cricket’s incontrovertible bind.
Their sole hope of chasing a realistic fourth-innings target was to take wickets and dismiss the visitors for around 300. Yet deploying fielders and bowlers to try and create those opportunities conversely provided scoring chances for the batting team.
The personification of this dilemma became the presence of a silly mid-off fielder to right-handed pair Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane facing Lyon’s off-spin, with the catcher rotating in and out that position with all the confusing oscillation most recently reserved for Australia prime ministers.
Having twice been denied Pujara’s wicket on review the previous day, Lyon was deprived Rahane’s scalp when he was adjudged by umpire Llong to be caught at bat-pad for 17, a verdict that the India batter opted to challenge after some deliberation.
Unlike Finch, if Rahane felt unsure as to whether or not he’d made contact with bat or gloves then he might have been swayed by the fallibility of Llong’s decision-making over the preceding day.
It proved a shrewd call, as technology confirmed the ball had gone from pad, to rib cage, to Finch at short-leg, and Australia’s misery endured.
The availability of a second new ball an hour before lunch then loomed as India’s final challenge before claiming absolute ascendancy, and when it arrived it proved more of an impetus than an imposition.
So erratic was Mitchell Starc who conceded 17 runs in the course of two overs – including a pair of deliveries speared so wide past leg stump that each yielded four byes – that a frustrated Paine felt no option but to recall Lyon to the crease, even though the ball was just three overs’ worn.
It proved a belated success, as Pujara popped a catch to short-leg via pad and glove, and spared umpire Llong additional angst by heading for the dressing room the moment the catch was accepted.
Lyon’s removal of Rohit Sharma 14 runs later – the enigmatic India number six smartly snared by Handscomb who was filling the casual vacancy at silly mid-off – only served to underscore how crucial those three successful DRS challenges had been.
That’s because the bottom half of India’s batting fell apart with only one conspicuous yelp, from livewire keeper Pant as the visitors gave clear indication their lunchtime lead of 275 was already beyond Australia’s reach.
Pant, whose irrepressible nature is expressed in the somersaults, cartwheels and back flips he executes as part of his pre-training warm-up routine, took to Lyon with a post-lunch viciousness that bordered on inhumane.
After three consecutive boundaries – two through mid-wicket and then a hefty blow to long-on – Pant launched a brutal slog-sweep that cleared the fence at square leg, taking India’s surplus within a similar blow of 300.
But when the 21-year-old perished to an inevitable mis-hit, with his bid to lift Lyon over the off-side sending a fly-ball to deep cover, India’s innings descended into free-fall.
Their final four wickets tumbled in the absence of a solitary run from the bat, the only increase in the score being attributed to byes when Starc again strayed down leg.
But perhaps India’s bowlers were simply conserving energy, knowing that a day and half remained in the Test with the Adelaide pitch appearing as friendly as at any previous phase of the series opener.
Australia XI: Marcus Harris, Aaron Finch, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Peter Handscomb, Travis Head, Tim Paine (c,wk), Pat Cummins, Mitch Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
India XI: KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma
Domain Test Series v India
Dec 6-10: First Test, Adelaide Oval
Dec 14-18: Second Test, Perth Stadium
Dec 26-30: Third Test, MCG
Jan 3-7: Fourth Test, SCG
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c, wk), Josh Hazlewood (vc), Mitch Marsh (vc), Pat Cummins, Aaron Finch, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Chris Tremain
India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Prithvi Shaw, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar