MS Dhoni was under increasing pressure coming into the opening Test against Australia at the M Chidambaram stadium on Sunday.
As captain he had to shoulder the blame for his team suffering a rare home reverse against England, coming in the wake of 4-0 away drubbings against both England and Australia back-to-back.
As a batsman the 31-year-old had not scored a Test hundred in 15 months. Both the factors -- his poor form and the team’s recent poor record -- had led many to question Dhoni’s place in the Indian Test squad.
Having withstood all the piling pressure, it was time for him to deliver.
And deliver he did, with his sixth Test century, a magnificent 118 that helped consolidate India’s position in the game.
It was his first Test hundred since the 144 against West Indies at the Wankhede stadium in November 2011 and also his first against Australia, a team against which he had always struggled.
It also happened to be his Test best, surpassing the 148 against Pakistan at the Iqbal stadium in Faislabad in January 2006, an innings that came when his career was in its nascent phase.
His innings completely eclipsed a resolute hundred made by Virat Kohli (107) earlier in the day.
Dhoni’s exploits helped India build a crucial first innings lead over Australia. At stumps on day three, the home team had made 515 for eight (141 overs), an overall lead of 135 runs.
Dhoni was unbeaten on 206, his innings helping surpass Sunil Gavaskar (205) as the highest score made by an Indian captain.
Michael Clarke kept rotating his bowlers, giving them shorter spells, but to no avail. For, it was a forgettable day at work for Australia, one that they would want to forget at the earliest.
In the final analysis, with this kind of a lead it is a lost cause for the visitors.
Morning session (81 runs, 27 overs, 1 wicket)
The serpentine queue as early as six in the morning gave an ample indication of the fact that it was going to be a packed house at the MA Chidambaram stadium on Sunday morning, the third day of the opening Test between India and Australia.
Sachin Tendulkar was unbeaten on 71, and fans thronged to see their favourite batsman score a century.
The Indian innings progressed at a snail’s pace in the morning. The approach was palpable. James Pattinson had been impressive on the second day and the Indian batsmen were keen to see him off.
They succeeded. Pattinson (third spell, 5-2-6-0) and Peter Siddle (fourth spell, 4-2-6-0) were seen off, the home team adding only 14 runs to their overnight total (182-3) in the first 11 overs of the day.
However, the first bowling change affected by Michael Clarke ensured Australia their first success of the morning.
Nathan Lyon, so disappointing on the opening day, struck in the first ball of his second over – the 12th of the day. It happened to be a vital breakthrough.
A tossed up delivery landed on the rough and spun inwards, taking an inside edge before crashing on to the stumps. It’s a classic off-spinner dismissal, the victim being Tendulkar.
The Master Blaster had disappointed the hordes of fans that had come specifically to see him bat, managing to add just 10 runs to his overnight score.
Tendulkar’s 159-ball knock was inclusive of seven boundaries and he put on 91 runs for the fourth wicket with Kohli.
In came captain MS Dhoni, and along with Kohli, ensured the fans were entertained. The 50-run partnership for the fifth wicket was reached in under 11 overs, courtesy two boundaries off Kohli in what was Moises Henriques’ first over of the day.
The home team reached 263 for four at lunch (79 overs).
Post-lunch session (108 runs, 26 overs, two wickets)
If the first session witnessed the Indian batsmen combining caution and aggression to an equal measure, the second session was all about the latter.
Australia did have the option to take the second new ball, which they did in the 83rd over. However, neither Pattinson nor Starc could make the breakthrough that their team so desperately needed.
On the contrary, they leaked runs in a canter.
Successive boundaries off Starc, in the first two balls of the latter’s 20th over (the 86th of the innings), helped Dhoni complete his 29th Test fifty, his sixth against Australia. He celebrated the same with a third boundary in the over, three balls later, this one helping raise the 100-run partnership for the fifth wicket.
A boundary in the next over by Pattinson, helped Kohli reach his fourth Test hundred, his second against Australia -- after that memorable 116 in the fourth Test in Adelaide last year. The shot, that comfortably beat the square leg fielder, also helped the home team get past the 300-run mark.
However, Kohli got carried away amid all the cheering from the crowd and holed out to Starc at mid-on, a tame end to what had been a dogged innings.
Australia had finally managed the breakthrough, against the run of play, and it was Lyon who had ensured it, for the second time in the day.
Kohli's 206-ball was inclusive of 15 boundaries and a six and he helped his captain put on 128 runs for the sixth wicket, in real quick time (in 26.1 overs) at that.
It took 13 balls before Ravindra Jadeja got himself on the board, clipping Lyon to the midwicket fence. But the ‘deemed all-rounder’ did provide his captain ample support -- putting 41 runs for the sixth wicket -- to inch closer to the Australian total.
However, when on 16, he rather inexplicably left an incoming delivery from Pattinson and saw his stumps getting shattered.
India had reached 371 for six at tea (105 overs), just nine adrift of the visitor’s first innings score.
Post-tea session (144 runs, 36 overs, two wickets)
Four balls into the final session and Lyon gave Australia a reason to cheer, cleaning up R Ashwin (3). Harbhajan was lucky to survive in the same over,
Lyon gives Australia an early success after resumption, rattling Ashwin's (3) stumps. Harbhajan also survives in the over.
However, the first ball of the next over by Siddle brought the cheer back on Indian faces. Dhoni hit the ball to the square leg fence, his 13th boundary of the innings, to reach his hundred.
Another couple off the captain’s blade, in Siddle’s next over, helped the home team take the lead.
Harbhajan (11) helped his captain put on 34 runs for the eighth wicket before being cleaned up by Henriques, giving the latter his first Test wicket.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar came out to the crease, and he was a mere spectator as his captain began a final assault, one that saw the home team extend their lead to more than 100 runs.
The ninth wicket stand between Dhoni and Kumar yielded India 109 runs, of which the latter’s contribution was only 16.