Australia’s slide away from the Border-Gavaskar Trophy descended into rare farce today when captain Ricky Ponting could not use his pace bowlers at the most pivotal moment of the series due to the threat of a ban for slow over rates.
The Australians glimpsed a victory that would tie the series 1-1 by producing an inspired second session to reduce India to 6-166 at tea, a lead of only 252, following another star turn by 12-wicket debutant Jason Krejza (4-143).
But Ponting is believed to have been warned after the break that he was staring at a suspension for his side’s abominable over rate, and the tourists relied on unthreatening part-timers Cameron White, Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke to support Krejza.
Taking advantage of the elbow room, Indian skipper Mahendra Dhoni (55) and spinner Harbhajan Singh (52) then built a stand of 108 to help the home side to a total of 295, their lead of 381 probably enough to kill off the series.
Openers Matthew Hayden and Simon Katich reached 0-13 in 1.3 overs before bad light brought stumps.
The day’s events left serious questions confronting Ponting, vice captain Michael Clarke and coach Tim Nielsen about why the over rate was allowed to slip so alarmingly.
Australia were unable to call on Shane Watson (4-42) until the final session was more than 90 minutes old, making for the unedifying spectacle of a once-mighty Australia using odds and sods off short runs when a Test match was in the balance.
Krejza, in particular, deserved a better fate after conjuring two wonderful deliveries to claim his ninth and 10th wickets of a memorable match.
His match haul of 12-358 stands as the equal third-best Test debut of all time, but crazily also the second most runs conceded by a bowler in a Test.
Moments before tea he squeezed out an expansive off break to bowl VVS Laxman for four and then next ball sent Sourav Ganguly on his way for a duck in his final Test innings – shades of Bradman.
Needing quick wickets to unbalance the Indians after they began the day with an overall lead of 86, the Australians had been unable to take a single wicket for the morning session, as Virender Sehwag (92) and debutant Murali Vijay (41) batted with real certainty.
Krejza went closest to a breakthrough when Sehwag’s checked drive fell millimetres short of Lee at mid off.
But he was still milked for around six runs per over, and after lunch Ponting called on Watson and Brett Lee (1-27) for one final effort.
For one of the few occasions this series they were able to gain late movement through the air, and Watson’s sharp in-ducker accounted for Vijay.
Rahul Dravid (3) scratched around once again before touching a Watson delivery that shaped subtly away, and the wickets served to maintain faint interest in the contest.
Australian thoughts of a major turnaround gathered real speed in the minutes before the interval, when in the space of two balls Krejza again illustrated the folly of not choosing him until the final Test.
First he bowled Laxman through the gate with a prodigious off break that took out leg stump after pitching in the footmarks created by Mitchell Johnson (0-22), and next ball he dived forward for a return catch after Ganguly had closed the face on a delivery that drifted in then broke away.
Dhoni negotiated the hat-trick ball, then played with freedom after tea, albeit against an attack far weaker than the one he should have been facing.