Bangalore: The Fab Four of Indian batting didnt fire up to expectations, with Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly barely achieving the pass marks, but it was Harbhajan Singh who proved to be the king on a crumbling slow pitch at the Chinnaswamy on Saturday.
At close on the third day, the Indians rode a handsome 80-run eighth partnership from Harbhajan and Zaheer Khan to be 117 runs behind Australias first innings total of 430.
With Anil Kumble deciding to come down the order, Harbhajan paired up with Zaheer to lead the Indian fight back after Mitchell Johnson had laid India low. Harbhajan was ruthless at anything the Aussies directed at him. The second new ball proved to be a boon as they accelerated against the Aussie pace attack.
Harbhajan dominated and demoralised the bowlers from the outset. Forget the geometry of his strokes, it was more a triumph of circumstance, of power and timing.
He swatted when Brett Lee dared to bounce and also pulled and top-edged boundaries. He thrashed a Stuart Clark delivery to the long on fence to bring up his half century, his third against Australia in the past three Tests.
In the face of an unexpected assault, the attack — till then riding high on their success in the first two sessions — deflated as swiftly as a pricked balloon.
Harbhajans 54 came off 110 balls and included five boundaries. Zaheer drew inspiration from Harbhajan and offered him the much-needed support to remain unbeaten on 35.
The day was supposed to be all about Sachin Tendulkar and the impending world record. Instead, Dravid and Souravs rear guard action in challenging conditions helped India avoid the follow on. While Dravid managed a half-century, Sourav fell three runs short.
Coming in at No.6, Sourav never showed any signs of having to battle immense pressure and probing media attention over the past week. The patience, the strong mental approach, the determination, the concentration and application needed to build an innings were on full view as he relished every moment of his 191 minute stay.
Unflinched even after being hit on the helmet by Shane Watson, flattened in a collision with Cameron White at the non-strikers end, he continued unabated. A few overs later, though, he needed attention from the physio for an apparent nose bleed. The break seemed to have disturbed his concentration and he was out next ball, the reverse swing helping Johnson.
The ball had pitched outside the off stump and came back to hit the front flap. Replays suggested that the ball would have missed the off stump and Asad Rauf raised his finger after a quick thought.
Johnson reiterated his liking for the Indian batsmen. Exploiting their age-old weakness against the moving ball, he snapped the vital wickets of Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and V. V. S. Laxman in the first session.
Identified by Dennis Lillee at a fast bowling clinic at the age of 17 as a once-in-a-lifetime prospect, he has since commanded an inordinate amount of attention. Former Australia chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns was so impressed by him that, in order to get a closer look, he once umpired a junior match.
Not just his cricket, Johnsons flamboyance lends a new pitch to Cricket Australias appeal to the Playstation generation. He is the poster child in their effort to market the game.
But to focus solely on his looks will mean missing the bigger picture. The four wickets on Saturday were a reward for the left-arm pacers accuracy and perseverance.
Sehwag had powered to 45, most of which came on the second afternoon, when Johnson switched to round the wicket. The India opener slashed at a widish delivery without moving his feet only to be taken brilliantly at first slip by Matthew Hayden.
The biggest disappointment for the near full house was Sachin (13), who will have to wait to go past Laras 11953 runs. After an encouraging start during which he square cut Brett Lee and cover drove Johnson with elan, Sachin was deceived by a slower one. Laxman followed next for a 12-ball duck.
It was left to Dravid and Sourav to wage the battle before Harbhajan took over.