It was drop chances that pegged India behind from a position of strength on the first day. 54 runs by the last two Australia wickets and a dismissal through an unnecessary shot robbed India from an opportunity to unnerve Australia on the second day.
Thrice did the honours for the morning session alternate between the teams. Until the stroke of the first hour, hardly anything went India's way. The overnight pair of Tim Paine and Cameron Green cashed in whenever presented with a run-scoring opportunity.
Paine looked more comfortable, balanced in defence and attack while on his way to a second half-century of the series. Green was a bit of everything - playing and missing against T Natarajan, leaving Mohammed Siraj well on length and crushing drives down the ground on fuller balls.
There were three chances for India in the first. An edge off Green against Natarajan flew past the absent third slip. In the next over, Siraj collected the ball after a forward defence from Paine. Realizing that the batsman was standing outside the crease to counter movement, he hurled the throw at the striker's end. Paine would have been gone if it had hit.
In his first over, Washington Sundar induced a nick off Green. The ball ricocheted off Rishabh Pant's thigh and fell well in front of a diving Ajinkya Rahane at first slip.
Just when Australia was easing through a huge total, Shardul Thakur's outswing got the edge off Paine and into the hands of second slip. Things got better as a straighter one from Sundar cleaned up Green in the next over. 311/5 became 315/8 after a near-yorker from Thakur caught Pat Cummins plumb in front. India came roaring back.
As it happens with India - even with their best attack - the tail wagged. Thakur dumped his consistent lengths that worked in the over earlier to alter between short and full to numbers nine and ten. Nathan Lyon attacked whatever was thrown at him. Justin Langer once said of Virat Kohli that he is great because only great batsmen play on-drive. Even after 100 Tests, it is not late for Lyon to realise a potential batting great in him after the on-drive he hit off Thakur. Something that Lyon acknowledged at the close of play will be tough to replicate ever again.
Before Lyon took over, it was Mitchell Starc who initiated the counter-attack with a six down the ground against Sundar. But, it was he who ended the partnership with some street-smartness. Playing a premeditated sweep every ball, Lyon exposed his leg stump by getting too far across. Sundar cleaned him up with a faster one delivered full on leg stump. But the pair had done the damage, adding 39 off just 40 balls.
Ditching the plans that worked for them against the better batsmen, Indian pacers bowled around two-thirds of the deliveries short to the last three batsmen. A plan that could have worked for express pacers like Starc himself but looked mediocre for India's pacers who were at least 10kmph slower.
Even the field placements hurt India. A mistimed pull by Starc off a short ball from Siraj fell where a mid-on should be. Instead, the fielder was at long-on.
In the end, it was a full ball targeting Josh Hazlewood’s off-stump from Natarajan that ended Australia’s innings. But, not before the last pair added 15 frustrating runs themselves.
Batting on a surface with a lot more assistance than Sydney was going to be a challenge for India's openers. In a budding career so far, Shubman Gill has built his batting technique on staying to the leg-side of the ball while facing. This is to enable him to make enough room to swat the ball on the off-side or pull in front of square. But, this leads him to play away from his body at times. This is precisely what brought his demise today. The second ball from Cummins - bowling first change in the seventh over - was in the said corridor of uncertainty. Having defended well till then, Gill allowed himself a poke only for the ball to take the edge and land in the hands of second slip.
Threatening to take wickets every time he bowls is now a habit for Cummins. Bowling with unreal potency, he induced an outside edge off Cheteshwar Pujara on the very next ball. Since he played with softer hands, the ball landed short of second slip. It happened once more six overs later.
While he lasted, Rohit Sharma looked as assured batting on this surface as if the earth underneath was the red soil from Wankhede he is far more familiar with. Only it wasn't. He adjusted to the bounce well, judged the length well and defended with his body behind the bat. Whenever the bowlers erred by bowling at his body he was quick to play on the leg side to collect twos to the long boundaries.
He was imperious on the cut shot and nonchalant on drives down the ground. Batting on 44, he looked set for something special. Then he decided to turn back the clock. To a ball drifting into him from Lyon, Rohit came down the ground to attempt a needless lofted shot. The long on jogged a fair distance to catch the ball and end a knock that withheld so much promise.
The decision to choose a high-risk option was even more questionable since Rohit had collected a boundary off Lyon two balls earlier. Another overseas innings from Rohit ended with everyone scratching their heads and wondering what if he had chosen a more sensible option. With Rohit's wicket, the scoring rate dropped for India. There was no run for 25 balls after that. Clouds decided to open up during the Tea interval and there was no play possible after that.
Besides Cummins, the other two leading Aussie pacers did not look as threatening. Starc did not make the batsmen play enough balls while Hazlewood's pace was not enough to unsettle them. But, India did not need help from outside to throw away a chance to dominate this Test yet again.