Melbourne: For one minute short of four hours, Ajinkya Rahane and Virat Kohli made the future of Indian Test cricket look very bright indeed. For the two hours or so either side, the rest of the touring side confirmed why that future is still some way short of being realised.
A hot and occasionally hot-tempered third day at the MCG had numerous fluctuations. First Australia prospered with a pair of early wickets to hasty strokes from Cheteshwar Pujara and M Vijay, and later they did so again through Nathan Lyon’s persevering spin and a sharp spell of reverse swing from the admirable Ryan Harris.
But its centrepiece was a stand of 262 between Rahane and Kohli, a union that was both substantial enough to leave Steven Smith wondering where his next wicket was coming from but also swift enough to keep open the prospect of an outright result in this match, which India must win to stay in contention for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Rahane set the tone of the partnership, skating past 30 at better than a run a ball to shift momentum away from Australia. Kohli was a little more collected, but carried on beyond the loss of his partner and other members of India’s exceedingly collapsible tail to 169, his highest Test score. It was not until the last over of the day that Kohli fell, his edge clasped by a diving Brad Haddin.
The second exceptional Haddin catch of the day contrasted with some rather indifferent fielding by Australia through mid-afternoon, when at least three chances went down. Nathan Lyon missed the gentlest of return catches from Rahane in the final over before the second new ball became due, and after Mitchell Johnson took it an edge from Kohli’s bat was grassed by Shane Watson, diving to his left and into territory commonly reserved for Haddin.
Australian frustration with the Rahane-Kohli partnership was illustrated when Johnson fired a return at the stumps and caught Kohli in the lower back – words were exchanged at other times, and any visible acknowledgement of the Indian pair’s hundreds could best be described as low key. They were more generous to Rahane upon his departure, and Kohli was applauded by all sections of the ground as he led the players off at stumps.
Pujara had seemed unusually eager to see bat on ball, and from Harris’ second ball of the morning he aimed an uncharacteristic cut/glide to a ball he would have often left. The edge was thick and Haddin flew through the air, the milestone dismissal among his more spectacular, atoning for dropping the same batsman the previous evening.
Kohli was greeted by some fast stuff from Harris and Mitchell Johnson, but it was Vijay who was struck by the latter on the helmet with a short ball that reared up in defiance of an easy-paced pitch. Vijay shrugged off the blow, though its proximity to the rear of his head and neck made for a queasy replay viewing.
He had played and missed at more than his share of deliveries during another innings of otherwise calm temper, but he became impatient when teased by Watson’s line and medium pace. Aiming a cut shot similar to Pujara’s, he too offered a thick outside edge that this time sailed as far as Shaun Marsh at first slip.
This wicket seemed to tilt the morning towards Australia, but Kohli and Rahane responded with a counterattack of considerable verve. Rahane wasted very little time, and after a fortunate first boundary which bisected Haddin and Watson from a Lyon away-drifter, he struck a quartet far more convincing to help raise a 50-stand in as many minutes.
They went on with it in the afternoon, mixing some handsome and inventive strokes with eager running between the wickets and manipulation of Smith’s fields. The certainty with which Rahane and Kohli played seemed to work against Australian concentration, so when chances arrived they were not quite sharp enough to take them.
Lyon in particular will wonder for a long time how he managed to hash Rahane’s bunted return catch: in the 80th over of the innings it would have been a pivotal blow. But the miss allowed the stand to go on past tea, and to a point where India began to ponder a first-innings lead.
Ultimately it was Lyon who broke the stand, winning an lbw verdict from Kumar Dharmasena against a sweeping Rahane, though replays suggested the ball had not straightened enough to flick off stump. Having waited so long for his debut innings, KL Rahul’s stay was short but action-filled as he was dropped by substitute Peter Siddle when he tried to flick Lyon over midwicket, then held at short fine leg when trying an ambitious sweep next ball.
Harris gained some sharp bend and proved too good for both Dhoni and R Ashwin, before a somewhat off-key Johnson tempted Kohli into error in the day’s final over. With Rahane, Kohli had made this India’s day, but the less flattering passages either side of their stand meant the match may still lean towards Australia.
India 8 for 462 (Kohli 169, Rahane 147) trail Australia 530 by 68 runs