Australia v India Tests
Lyon preys on India as decider hots up
Australia off-spinner puts Australia back on top with inspired spell on second afternoon
Andrew Ramsey at the HPCA Stadium, Dharamsala
26 March 2017, 11:30 PM AEST
After two sessions where Australia repeatedly turned to their pacemen in a bid to get them back into the fourth Test on lively pitch, spinner Nathan Lyon turned the game with a decisive last-session spell that has the deciding match on a knife-edge.
Prior to tea, India had seen off numerous aggressive, combative spells from the visitors' speed pair of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood who caused regular angst but were unable to convert that mental edge into the physical equivalent with only two wickets falling across four hours.
But then Lyon, suddenly finding himself blessed with the sort of conditions that he revels in at home and which have helped him become Australia's most successful Test finger-spinner, prised apart India's obdurate middle-order with 4-36 from a 14-over spell in the final session.
Leaving the home team 6-248 at stumps and still 52 runs adrift of their rivals, with only the bowlers left to bat and needing to win this Test to regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy from their rivals.
The unlikely sight of a pitch more reminiscent of the Gabba or WACA in character meant the 29-year-old – who claimed career-best Test figures in the second match at Bengaluru – could employ his favoured weapons of bounce and overspin.
In addition to occasional sharp turn, given the Dharamsala wicket is bone dry and starting to dust up despite its enduring lingering tinge of green grass and the pace and carry still on offer.
Lyon began his feature spell with his sixth delivery after tea when he had India's batting mainstay of the series Cheteshwar Pujara caught at short leg, and then four overs later snared Karun Nair in similar fashion.
Operating unchanged from the Himalayas end for almost the entire final session, Lyon then prised out India's acting captain Ajinkya Rahane who was stunned to misread a ball that skidded on and was smartly caught at slip by Smith in the same manner Rahane snared David Warner yesterday.
And then Lyon had rival off-spinner Ravi Ashwin pinned lbw by a delivery that turned past the inside edge, before Smith returned to his quicks for an end-of-day burst with the second new ball.
Which should have brought an immediate result, with Matthew Renshaw shelling a sharp chest-high chance to his left off Ranchi century maker Wriddhiman Saha, which was his second dropped catch of another see-sawing day.
A day on which four of India's top six scored 30 or above, but only reliable opener KL Rahul managed to double that total as the tourists delivered another disciplined day of patient, often potent, seam and spin bowling.
Rahul has been India's stand-out batter across all four Tests, reaching his fifth half-century from six innings when he helped himself to four through mid-wicket off Stephen O'Keefe's left-arm spin.
But unlike Pujara and Smith for Australia, the 24-year-old has been unable to turn his regular starts into game-changing scores and despite his productivity has yet to reach a century.
It seemed that frustration might just have cost him his wicket today.
That, and a clever burst of targeted fast bowling from Cummins who intimidated and harassed and taunted and eventually coaxed the opener to play a pull shot that he was never in control of.
The resultant catch, from the toe of Rahuls' bat the looped lazily to Warner at mid-off, bringing the second of the pair of breakthroughs the Australians had to work so hard to achieve in two draining sessions before tea.
Which made Lyon's dismissal of the redoubtable Pujara in the first over of the evening session – squeezing a catch to bat-pad in a classic off-spinner's trap – even more of an unexpected gift.
For the first two hours, the Test that is supposed to crown the winner of this series unfolded in similar fashion to its drawn predecessor at Ranchi, albeit on a pitch that exhibited all the qualities absent from last week's lifeless strip.
Pace for the quicks, bounce for the spinners and a combination of the two allowing batters to play strokes when they weren't being vigilantly defensive.
Which was a majority of the time, as Australia's pace pair Hazlewood and Cummins offered up little in the way of width, errors of length or respite.
Notably Cummins who, as was the case on a vastly less responsive pitch at Ranchi, was the most consistently threatening of Australia's bowlers as he routinely pushed 150kph during his pair of morning spells.
But it was Hazlewood who nailed the breakthrough shortly before the day's first drinks break when he eventually tempted Murali Vijay to push at a delivery he might just as easily let pass by.
As the opener had done so vigilantly throughout the first 10 overs of the day as Hazlewood targeted the disconcerting crack that had begun to open in the pitch just back of a length outside a right-hander's off stump.
So Hazlewood's demonstrable show of victory when Vijay finally got an edge through to wicketkeeper Wade was understandable, and the prolonged stare he aimed at the combative batter said everything while enunciating nothing.
That celebration would have escalated next over when Cummins got a delivery to shoot off the pitch and also shape away late at speed to catch the edge of Rahul's bat and first slip Renshaw by surprise.
In much the same manner as Warner's let-off from the opening ball of the match, Renshaw instinctively thrust his hands above his left shoulder in the knowledge the ball was rifling somewhere in that vicinity.
The 20-year-old, highly regarded almost as much for his slips catching prowess as for his increasingly impressive Test batting, was only able to parry the ball to the boundary rope as Australia's hopes of a quick double-breakthrough disappeared into the distance with it.
While India emulated Australia's effort a day earlier by losing a solitary wicket in the opening session, there was a marked contrast in approach – the visitors rattling up 131 compared to the home team's 64.
The difference became even more stark after the break – the corresponding session to which Australia lost 5-77 and control of the Test in the process – when India pair Rahul and Pujara cautiously pressed the pedal.
Rahul pulled out a slog sweep for six off O'Keefe to signal it would be Australia's spinners who would be targeted, not long after the opener had worn a brutish short ball from Hazlewood on the fingers of his right hand.
It was clearly going to take a special effort on a pitch so true and lacking in sharp spin and uneven bounce that not a single DRS review was called for throughout the first five sessions.
And it was Cummins who was able to produce just that to fire out Rahul, before Lyon's even more decisive cameo swung momentum marginally back towards Australia.
Australia XI: Warner, Renshaw, Smith (c), SMarsh, Handscomb, Maxwell, Wade (wk), Cummins, O'Keefe, Lyon, Hazlewood #INDvAUS— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) March 25, 2017
India XI: Rahul, Vijay, Pujara, Rahane (c), Nair, Ashwin, Saha (wk), Jadeja, Kumar, Umesh, Kuldeep #INDvAUS— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) March 25, 2017
Australia's schedule in India
Feb 23-27, First Test, Pune – Australia won by 333 runs.
Mar 4-8, Second Test, Bengaluru – India won by 75 runs.
Mar 16-20, Third Test, Ranchi – match drawn.
Mar 25-29, Fourth Test, Dharamsala