Watson scored a deserving hundred, his second in Tests - after his effort against Pakistan at Melbourne [ Images ] -- and was the pillar around which the Australian innings was built.
It was Watson's third successive century in this series, considering that he reached triple figures in both the innings of the drawn practice game against the Board President's XI last week.
After 90 overs, the visitors were 224 for five at stumps.
The Indian bowling improved considerably in the final session, forcing the Australian batsmen to slow down.
The fourth Australian fifty (150 to 200) took a whopping 193 balls.
Then came a severe blow when Zaheer trapped Michael Hussey (17) plumb in front. Hussey faced 76 balls for his runs.
Watson celebrated his hundred soon after but the Australians couldn't celebrate for long as Zaheer clipped Marcus North's (0) bails in the next over.
In that very over Tim Paine was dropped by Dhoni when he was yet to open his account.
Morning session: (101 runs, 28 overs, 1 wicket)
The match started with a missed opportunity for the home team.
India [ Images ] didn't have to wait long for success though.
Zaheer ensured them an early breakthrough when he trapped Simon Katich [ Images ] (6) leg before in the fifth over.
However, if Zaheer was bowling with a good rhythm, Ishant struggled to find his. The result, a slew of no-balls, one of which gave Ponting a new lease after he was caught behind.
Ponting and Watson started finding their range soon enough and what followed was a string of good shots, their 50-run partnership coming off just 64 balls.
Watson survived a second dropped chance when on 37, Dhoni dropping him off Pragyan Ojha [ Images ].
The visitors reached the 100-run mark in 27.1 overs, just before lunch.
At lunch (after 28 overs), they were 101 for one, with Watson unbeaten on 44 and Ponting on 40.
Earlier, Ponting won the toss and elected to bat.
Harabhajan Singh, who had fitness concerns after a leg injury, was cleared to play.
Post-lunch session: (78 runs, 29 overs, 2 wickets)
The second session began on an equally impressive note for the visitors.
Ponting was the first to reach his half century with a boundary off Ojha.
It was the Australian captain's 53rd half century in test cricket, his seventh against India but only his third on Indian soil. He celebrated the same with successive boundaries off Zaheer.
Watson survived yet another run out attempt to reach his 10th test half century, his second against India, with a single off Zaheer.
Ishant was reintroduced into the attack in the 37th over, but could bowl only four deliveries before retiring injured. Two of those four deliveries were despatched to the fence by Watson. Sehwag completed the over.
The Australian duo meanwhile, were batting well in tandem and it seemed India's wait for that elusive second wicket will get longer.
However, the Aussie pair were taking a risk too many. They attempt many cheeky singles and risked being run out on many occasions.
They were fortunate initially but eventually their luck ran out. When Ponting attempted another quick run at midwicket off Harbhajan, Suresh Raina's [ Images ] throw was good enough to catch him short of his crease.
It was the 14th instance of him being run out, the most by any batsman in a series involving these two countries. Rahul Dravid [ Images ], Allan Border [ Images ] and Matthew Hayden [ Images ] shared the unwanted honour earlier, having been run out 13 times each.
However, the Aussie skipper did a commendable job, him and Watson putting on 141 runs for the second wicket, ensuring a solid foundation for their side.
Ponting's 71 came off 124 balls and was inclusive of 10 hits to the fence.
Even as he walked back to the pavilion frustrated, Zaheer riled him with some comment and followed a brief altercation. The umpire had to intervene.
Clarke was caught by Rahul Dravid at first slip, the fielder taking a good low catch, his 197th in test cricket.
The visitors were 179 for three after 57 overs.
Shane Watson was unbeaten on 75, with Michael Hussey [ Images ] yet to open his account.
Teams: India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni [ Images ] (captain), Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar [ Images ], Gautam Gambhir [ Images ], Harbhajan Singh [ Images ], Zaheer Khan, VVS Laxman [ Images ], Pragyan Ojha, Suresh Raina, Virender Sehwag, Ishant Sharma [ Images ].
Australia: Ricky Ponting [ Images ] (captain), Shane Watson, Simon Katich, Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey, Marcus North, Tim Paine (WC), Nathan Hauritz [ Images ], Doug Bollinger, Ben Hilfenhaus [ Images ], Mitchell Johnson [ Images ].