In the final drinks break on Friday afternoon at the Adelaide Oval, Australias batsmen, Travis Head and Patrick Cummins, stood silent and staunch, taking deep breaths, gathering their wits for a critical last hour.
India, meanwhile, were larking about. Beards were split by big smiles as Virat Kohli cracked a joke. As the Kiss Cam roved the ground, Murali Vijay tried to attract its attention by hugging and pretending to smooch the team physio, Pat Farhart.
The scorecard shows a tightly poised, grinding, even grim Test match. But the scorecard is masking a wide contrast between the moods possessing the two teams, a contrast which bodes more promisingly for the tourists than the hosts. After two days, India and Australia reached a scoreboard parity, but they arrived via very different routes.
Essentially, the second days play held up a mirror to the first. In their preparation, effort and mental application, Australia have played solidly and closer than India to their best. They had bowled with discipline on Thursday, and their batting on Friday observed the basics. There was no panic when wickets fell, no collapsing clumpty-dumpties as have been seen in recent times. They were patient. They fought. Aaron Finch and Shaun Marsh failed, but the rest all made themselves hard to get out. The pick of them, Adelaide local Head, withstood the ebbs and flows of losing and rediscovering his timing, and, under intense physical and psychological heat, prevailed. He never, so to speak, lost his head.
But would it be enough? Here is the rub: India have such a great advantage in experience and accomplishment in Test cricket, even if the young Australians play to their potential the outcome of the series lies more in Indias ability to adapt to foreign conditions. It is Indias to win or lose. Were this a tennis match, you would say it was on Indias racquet.
Indias bowling also followed the path of their first-innings batting. Just as their batsmen had played with a one-day tempo until Cheteshwar Pujara began to assert his will and his sanity, their bowling needed to shift from one-day to Test length as the innings progressed. Ishant Sharmas detonation of Aaron Finchs stumps third ball of the Australian innings was one of the few deliveries pitched in the dangerous forward third of the wicket before lunch. Had the Indian seamers not banged the new red ball into a white-ball length under overcast skies in the morning, the visitors would have been batting again by stumps. As on Thursday, a possibly over-excited India wasted their first chance.
The change came about when Ravichandran Ashwin entered the attack. Debutant Marcus Harris looked every bit a Test batsmen until Ashwin disturbed him. Neat and tidy against the pacemen, Harris became indecisive against the tweaker, attempting a few ungainly lashes toward the cover region before edging onto his pad. Should he continue to survive the new ball, Harris will be seeing plenty more of the off-spinner this summer.
Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb also applied themselves maturely, but their job grew harder when the Indian bowlers, given confidence by Ashwins probing long spell from the River End, relaxed into a fuller length as they rotated from the Cathedral End. Ashwins influence with the ball was as telling as Pujaras had been with the bat, settling his teammates down and providing the necessary adjustment to a Test cricket tempo and the specific demands of Australian conditions.
Each of the Indian bowlers improved through the afternoon. Jasprit Bumrah, disappointingly short in the morning, came back with an impressive spell to remove Handscomb. Sharma pitched up and was too good for Tim Paine. Into the final session, Australia fell behind in the match and became reliant on lower-order runs to bring them back. This was a shame for Head, whose progress towards a first Test century would need to rely on his tail-enders support. Meanwhile, Bumrahs searing inswinger to end Cumminss one-hour resistance, his third delivery with the second new ball, was a clear snapshot of Indias improvement through the course of the day.
The Test match is still in the balance, but ominously for Australia, they have played closer to their potential than India have. The Indians are a more seasoned and self-confident team, but their application to the task has been patchy. They have needed time to work their way into this game. The Australians, playing under a cloud of penitence, have been ready to play and have done their best with what is available. Over an absorbing first two days the paths taken by both teams have woven themselves together, but on the weekend they are set to come apart.
Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
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