"The longer we bat, it is going to be hard for Australia to bat," was what KL Rahul said after stumps on Day 3 of the second Test of the series between India and Australia in Bengaluru. Given how things unfolded on Monday, India seemed to be on course for setting a target that certainly would be competitive, a result of what turned out to be their best batting performance so far in the series.
For the first time in the ongoing edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, barring perhaps the second-wicket stand between Rahul and Cheteshwar Pujara on the opening day of the match, the Indians showed intent and application to go past the 200-run mark with plenty of wickets in hand. Pujara (79 not out), who has been among the most prolific run-getters this season, forged a solid, unbeaten partnership with Ajinkya Rahane (40 not out) to give his teammates a reason to smile for the first time since 23 February.
The day began with overcast skies and the cracks on the pitch getting wider, with the latter perhaps sending a shiver or two down the spines of batsmen from either camp. The pitch had started to assist spin right from the second session of the opening day, and with the bounce starting to get even more unpredictable, wickets were expected to tumble in a heap.
Matthew Wade and Mitchell Starc, the overnight Australian batsmen, started off on a cautious note although they were expected to guide the visitors past a lead of 100 runs and even target a total in the range of 320. The two started off on that path, keeping the scoring rate steady in the initial overs while tackling some sharp deliveries from Ravichandran Ashwin.
The Tamil Nadu off-spinner's luck seemed to have continued from its rottenness on the previous day when Starc managed to overturn a caught behind decision with the help of DRS. It took just four deliveries, though, for it to turn around as the big-hitter down the order miscued an attempted slog towards mid-wicket, only to get caught by Ravindra Jadeja.
When the crafty left-arm all-rounder was introduced into the attack for the first time on Day 3, he had bowled only 17 of the 115 overs that had passed in the Australian innings. Yet Jadeja not only removed the danger man Wade shortly after his introduction, he triggered a collapse that saw the tourists lose their last three wickets for just two runs. His figures of 6/63 prompted many to wonder whether the Indians missed a trick in under-bowling him, and consequently allowing Australia to run away to a total that was within touching distance of the 300-mark. The deficit of 87, though, was a manageable one, and all that the hosts needed were a couple of big partnerships.
Another positive for Virat Kohli's men in the first session was putting up 38 runs without losing a wicket, with Rahul appearing to get into his rhythm once again in this Test. Despite Abhinav Mukund getting castled by Josh Hazlewood right after the lunch interval, which could well bury his Test hopes for the time being, Rahul kept the runs flowing from the other end, forging a 45-run second wicket stand with Pujara while notching up his second fifty in his maiden Test on home ground.
A century at the M Chinnaswamy stadium would have been the cherry on top of what has been a special Test for him so far, and probably would have placed the home team in an even stronger position at stumps. However, a stunning, one-handed catch by opposition captain Steve Smith at slip ended his innings at 51, 39 short of what he had achieved in the previous innings. Once again, the Australians got a breakthrough after an interval, this time after the second drinks break of the day, which then triggered a mini collapse that brought the now-familiar dark clouds back over the Indians momentarily.
The hex on Kohli did not show any signs of wearing off, as a shooter from Hazlewood rapped him low on his front pad to dismiss him for a lowly 15. Once again he used the DRS in vain, though this time there was genuine doubt over the possibility of an inside edge off his bat. Then the Indian think tank decided to send Jadeja ahead of Ajinkya Rahane for some reason (the left-right combination with Pujara appearing the most probable reason), which tanked after the former got his middle stump uprooted by an delivery that angled sharply into him.
Had it not been for Pujara and Rahane's brilliance in the final session of the third day, which turned out to be the first in the series so far which did not have a fall of wicket, the Indians could very well have been facing the prospect of falling short of the 200-run mark yet again. The two stuck to their task with a level of determination that perhaps was last seen during Kohli's brave 49 not out against the Englishmen in Rajkot a few months ago, and it is due to their persistence that India now stand a genuine chance of levelling the series with two more games to go.
The see-saw battle on Day 3 has helped set things up nicely for the remaining two days, with the match swinging either way very much a possibility. While the Indians need the two batsmen at the crease to guide the hosts past a lead of 200, and bat for at least a session, an early wicket or preferably two, could bring the visitors right back into the game. Let's just hope we get to see Test cricket at its best in the remainder of the match like we did on Monday.