Smith won the toss and put his team in to bat but the hosts were on the back foot for much of a mild, sunny day in front of a festive Boxing Day crowd of 70,000.
Continuing a stellar run of form, Smith was unbeaten on 72 at stumps, with wicketkeeper Brad Haddin surviving a couple of body blows from India’s pacemen and clutching to a scratchy 23.
Though not helped by some appalling fielding, particularly in the morning session, India’s bowlers stuck to their task on a benign drop-in wicket to pin Australia down in the final two sessions.
“I think it’s pretty even to be honest,” Australia opening batsman Chris Rogers told reporters after scoring 57, his third successive half-century in the series.
“I think there’s enough in the wicket if you get it in the right area. There was the odd ball that seemed to kiss and go a bit quicker off the wicket.”
Smith and middle order batsman Shaun Marsh resumed after tea with Australia on 174-3, but Marsh was out quickly for 32 with a rash front-foot swipe at paceman Mohammed Shami that gave an edge to India wicketkeeper and captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Test debutant Joe Burns, replacing injured all-rounder Mitchell Marsh, managed 13 runs before bottom-edging an Umesh Yadav delivery to Dhoni.
Where Smith never really appeared under great threat, out-of-form wicketkeeper Haddin was under the gun constantly from India’s quicks but scrapped through the final overs to ensure the hosts lost no further ground.
Australia’s batsmen are likely to be disappointed with their return, with several making starts but only Smith cashing in.
Rogers and Shane Watson raised half-centuries after lunch but were both out within minutes of each other.
One ball after a mix-up over a single, Rogers nicked an edge to Dhoni behind the stumps off Shami, while Watson was trapped lbw by spinner Ravi Ashwin for 52 with an ill-timed sweep.
Under pressure after a string of low scores, the all-rounder failed to make India pay after being dropped in the slips by Shikhar Dhawan on 37.
Yadav dismissed opening batsman David Warner for a duck in the second over but India squandered the start with poor fielding as the hosts pushed to 92-1 at lunch.
Dhawan caught Warner well in the slips but made a hash of Watson’s chance before lunch, diving across from second slip and juggling the ball twice before it grounded, much to the delight of most of the MCG crowd.
Australia are bidding to seal the four-match series 3-0 after winning the opening tests in Adelaide and Brisbane.
India made two changes, with the out-of-form Rohit Sharma dropped in favour of debutant batsman Lokesh Rahul and Shami coming in for paceman Varun Aaron.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford/John O’Brien)