For Australia, this has been a series of deploying contrasting pace bowlers. When Mitchell Starc was available, he was the obvious pace spearhead. At the other end, they had Josh Hazlewood, not an express bowler but more in the Glenn McGrath mould, wearing the batsmen down with his accuracy.

So, when Starc broke down before the third Test, the Australian think-tank sent home an SOS. They didn’t want to use Jackson Bird, for he is near similar to Hazlewood. They wanted to keep the pace factor constant from the other end, and thus Pat Cummins answered the call. On the dead Ranchi wicket then, he was the only one to get the ball to consistently rise and trouble the batsmen.

Dharamsala was always going to be paradise for him in that sense. On a true wicket, with ample bounce, Cummins put that theory to full effect on Sunday. It was in the fourth over of the innings – third of the morning on day two – when one delivery took off from good length and KL Rahul simply had to sway aside. Cummins smiled, almost acknowledging that he was going to have fun bowling here.

Exploiting a true wicket

Hazlewood saw that bounce and went to work at the other end. His contest with Murali Vijay was a keen one. He enticed the batsman to come forward for the drive, but then slipped one at short of length, the ball bouncing enough to fool Vijay and almost lobbing up as a catch to mid-off.

He went full again, squaring up Vijay, the batsman playing and missing, and then edging behind only to see it fall short. Hazlewood, with his height and high release, was getting extra bounce. Coupled with early movement on and about the off-stump, Vijay – who otherwise leaves 31% of deliveries from pacers – was bamboozled. It wasn’t a surprise when he nicked behind soon after and walked back.

The difference between Hazlewood and Cummins is obviously pace – almost by five or six clicks. Cummins comes at you consistently at 89-90 mph, almost like Starc. But at least in one aspect, he still differs from Starc.

Pat Cummins has shown versatility, mixing up short deliveries with ones that come into the batsmen (Ron Gaunt/BCCI/SPORTZPICS)

On restrictive wickets such as those found in the Indian subcontinent, Starc has one particular game-plan in hand – either short or full, almost yorker length. He can be called one-dimensional, as quite evident from the Bengaluru Test. Cummins has shown more versatility, mixing up short deliveries with ones that come into the batsmen. This incoming angle that he creates gets ratcheted up when the bounce is as true as on a pitch like Dharamsala.

It is what troubled Rahul most in the morning session, and then Cheteshwar Pujara showed the way to counter it. Playing with soft hands, as a couple of edges flew off his bat but never close enough to the fielder at short leg. The first hour of play in the morning had yielded 31 runs, the second brought 34. There wasn’t much difference in numbers, yet the ease of scoring in the second half was easily visible.

Bowling ‘with pace and venom’

“They bowled with pace and venom,” said Rahul about the morning’s passage of play. “It was the toughest session of Test cricket in my career. They put us under pressure, and these are the sessions to grind out and see off. Runs can come later on.”

As much as the proceedings until then were about pacers versus Indian batsmen, one delivery from Nathan Lyon assumes significance. It was the last ball before lunch, and the off-spinner extracted more bounce than he has done since that first innings in Bengaluru. Something clicked for him hereafter.

“At lunch, I thought about the wicket and realised it was closer to wickets at home where I can try and generate more bounce, as it is my biggest weapon,” said Lyon after the day’s play.

What does Lyon do differently back home in Australia? Well, the answer is in the word over-spin, or top-spin if you please. He imparts more turn to the ball, an exaggerated loop if it can be described so, which allows the ball to travel through the air quicker and falls earlier on the pitch than what the batsman anticipates. On a pitch such as this one, the delivery then extracts more bounce, as he said, and surprises the batsmen.

India’s grind

Meanwhile, post lunch, just as Rahul had said, the runs were starting to come. He and Pujara added 44 runs in just over 12 overs, before the opener threw away his wicket once again. Just like Pune, it did cost India even if the manner of collapse was different. Australia deployed pace from one end, with both Cummins-Hazlewood taking turns to operate in tandem with Lyon. Together, they dried up the runs in that post-lunch session.

Sample this. Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane put on 49 runs for the third wicket, but they faced 20.4 overs for it. At one stage, only 10 runs came off 56 balls, coinciding with the moment when Pujara played away from his body against Lyon and was caught at short leg. The batsmen were just not allowed to get away and the double blow to remove Pujara and Karun Nair in the space of four overs didn’t help matters.

India's stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane scored 46 (IANS)

Nair made the mistake of playing the off-spinner on his back-foot. The extra bounce hurt him and he ended up lobbying a simple catch. Lyon’s real battle though was with Rahane, who had devised a ploy of scoring against him in the second innings in Bengaluru. The batsman had been stumped in the first innings there, jumping out for a cover drive.

Since then, Rahane chose not to play the drive, and went more side-on bringing the sweep into play. Lyon planned to not give him enough to bring out the sweep shot. It worked like a charm. Rahane could only manage three singles plus one four behind square. Then, Lyon got the better of his opponent as he slipped in a quicker delivery, one that over-spun, and took Rahane by surprise as he was caught at slip.

It was the moment that changed the direction of the Indian innings. With R Ashwin, the stand-in skipper had put on 49 runs for the fifth wicket, taken the scoreboard past 200 and raised visions of a handful lead. At stumps, with the score reading 248/6, that vision has dimmed a bit.

If Australian batsmen squandered a huge chance to gain the upper hand on day one, their bowling attack has denied India the same, keeping them in contention in this Test, and indeed the series.