cheteshwar pujara
Cheteshwar Pujara (AFP Photo)

Former Australia coach Darren Lehmann had earlier on Saturday suggested the hosts could be expecting a fourth-innings target of 300, indicating how this intriguing low-scoring Test match could shape after India closed out Australia’s innings for 235. With the help of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, the visitors buckled down for an improved effort with the bat to reach 151/3 in the second innings, stretching their lead to 166 runs at stumps on Day 3, despite a lengthy rain break in the morning.

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India needed to remove Australia’s last three wickets early, an aspect they have not been very good at as seen in a few contests in the past. In England, two Test matches went out of India’s grasp thanks to lower order contributions from Sam Curran, who eventually was named the visitor’s choice for Player of the Series. Mohammed Shami’s two wickets off consecutive deliveries to get Travis Head and Josh Hazlewood, and Jasprit Bumrah’s removal of Mitchell Starc ensured history didn’t repeat itself at Adelaide. The effort from India’s bowlers reflected on Rishabh Pant as well, as the India wicketkeeper pouched six catches behind the stumps to equal his idol MS Dhoni’s record.

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A lead of 15 runs isn’t much by any stretch, and yet the psychological gains of coming out to bat knowing Australia couldn’t reach India’s first-innings total despite having them down at 19/3 at one stage, is already showing. India would have been happier with both overnight batsmen resuming on Day 4, but captain Virat Kohli’s dismissal for 34 towards the end of Day 3 still gives Tim Paine’s men a slender hope. And yet, with seven wickets in hand, India can continue to bat time, and two sessions of consolidation could allow them to declare and force a result, after their much improved batting performance on Day 3.

Even though Murali Vijay and KL Rahul perished to expansive drives just like they did in the first innings, that they batted out 18.2 overs to add 63 for the first wicket was vital. Both openers left the ball well and saw off the early heat from Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins, forcing them to bowl to their strengths, which Rahul in particular was able to put away with glee. Vijay was done for eventually by Starc’s variation with the ball that was pushed across, while Rahul, after flowing his way to 44, went for a booming drive too many for an edge behind the stumps. Despite their wickets, the dressing room would have been happier to see Pujara and Kohli walk out much later than they did in the first innings.

Pujara’s century in the first innings was a lesson in application, and by the look of it, he is nowhere near done, having reached a watchful 40 despite the Adelaide heat getting to the India No. 3. The 71 runs added between him and Kohli have wrested the initiative firmly in India’s favour, thanks largely due to the duo’s countering of Lyon’s spin from the rough. Pujara repeatedly jumped down the track to blunt the turn and bounce, or went right back in his crease. He was twice given out by the umpire, but Pujara was able to overturn them successfully on both occasions, decisions that would have frustrated Australia’s off-spinner to no end.

Kohli’s dismissal, the sixth time Lyon has removed the Indian captain, the most by any bowler in Test cricket, indicated the amount of turn and bounce the Adelaide Oval surface has begun to offer the spinners, and the fourth and fifth days should see even a greater role for both Lyon and R Ashwin. Outside of India’s series in the West Indies, and the 2017 tour of Sri Lanka, India last won the first Test of a series in 2006, at the Wanderers in South Africa. For the first time in years, India find themselves on a tour which can begin with victory.