India struck back with four late wickets while Australia's Mike Hussey posted a defiant half-century to leave the first test delicately poised at the close of the third day on Wednesday.
In a pulsating day of high drama at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, paceman Zaheer Khan dismissed Ricky Ponting for 60 to end a 115-run stand with middle order batsman Hussey and spark another batting collapse for the hosts.
Hussey, under pressure to retain his place in the re-building team after a pair of golden ducks in his last two innings, hung on doggedly for 79 as his partners wilted, pushing Australia to 179-8 at stumps and an overall lead of 230.
The grizzled 36-year-old will resume with James Pattinson, a 21-year-old paceman on three not out in his third test, as they negotiate a wicket that showed enough on day three to encourage the seamers and keep a crowd of 40,000 at the MCG enthralled.
Tomorrow morning is going to be really crucial now, former captain Ponting told reporters after posting his second successive half-century.
We know James Pattinson has got some really solid promise with the bat and he's going to have to show that for us tomorrow morning, and we need Mike Hussey to have a go and get a big score and continue just to keep pushing the score forward.
We're 230 ahead now, which I think is a reasonable total for India to have to chase, but ideally we'd like to make a few more than that.
Despite Ponting and Hussey's defiant partnership, the day belonged to the bowlers with 15 wickets falling.
IN FROM THE COLD
Australia paceman Ben Hilfenhaus, back in the test side after a year in the freezer, played a key part early by taking five wickets to help skittle India for 282 after the tourists resumed on 214-3.
The 28-year-old bowled Rahul Dravid for 68 with the second ball of the day and blitzed India's middle order to finish with a career-best innings haul of 5-75.
That gave Australia a lead of 51 after lunch, but any hopes of grinding India into the dust were dashed when the hosts' top order collapsed spectacularly in the face of a pace onslaught from Umesh Yadav.
The rangy 24-year-old had opener David Warner (five) and number three Shaun Marsh (three) both play onto their stumps and trapped Ed Cowan lbw for eight after he failed to offer a shot.
Paceman Ishant Sharma bowled skipped Michael Clarke through the gate for one to leave the hosts reeling at 27-4.
Hussey and Ponting doggedly dug in for their half-centuries to swing the momentum to the hosts, but Zaheer stole it back when he struck with a devastating spell after tea.
Zaheer coaxed Ponting into a miscued drive with his second ball that went straight to Virender Sehwag in the gully.
He then had Brad Haddin caught behind by VVS Laxman for six, and with Australia's underbelly exposed, Yadav twisted the knife further by dismissing paceman Peter Siddle for four, caught sharply by lunging India captain MS Dhoni.
Nathan Lyon was trapped in front by spinner Ravichandran Ashwin for a duck before Hussey and Pattinson saw out the remaining overs under withering pressure to the end.
Sehwag praised India's bowlers as the best attack he had ever played with and forecast an epic battle to decide the match on day four.
I think it's a good day for India and the match is evenly balanced and any team can win that. If we win the game we have to really battle, the hard-hitting opener said.
When the ball is new, maybe the seam movement is important so I don't think Australia will rely on spin, they will rely on fast bowling ... We are good against spin bowling so we will definitely attack the spin bowlers.