India vs Australia: Cheteshwar Pujara v Pat Cummins - Immoveable object vs unstoppable force
As a seam bowler, the angled wrist and scrambled seam are your enemies. You have to keep the wrist upright and land every ball on the seam to move it, says text book wisdom. Pat Cummins doesn’t agree. He’s mastered the art of getting the ball to move with a tilted wrist and wobble seam. It’s something the Australian attack has been developing for the last few years, but Cummins is its best exponent. His bowling hand is marred, an accident he suffered as a child leaving his middle finger the same length as his index finger. Some people think that’s why he’s so good at the scrambled seam.
As a traditional Test match No. 3, playing square of the wicket is your enemy, goes the received wisdom. Cheteshwar Pujara doesn’t agree. He may be Rahul Dravid’s spiritual successor, but Dravid was a front foot, big-stride, top hand player. Pujara grips the bat close to the handle. He prefers to hang on the back foot, letting the ball come to him. It’s a technique that has suited him in this series. It’s a series which almost left him with a finger short.
Pujara has played 928 balls in this series. No other player has faced as many, of course. Cummins has bowled 162 overs this series. Only Nathan Lyon has bowled more, of course. These are athletes who deal in volume, display excellence in bulk. If they were in theatre, they would be accused of hogging the stage. They do, because they are too good to be dislodged. Cummins was never hit out of the attack. Pujara was dismissed in single figures only twice. Both times by Cummins.
Steve Smith vs R Ashwin was a cat-and-mouse game on a pendulum swing. Rishabh Pant vs Nathan Lyon was a study in denial and destruction. But underneath all the explosive stuff, the main thread of the narrative of this series was the battle between Cummins and Pujara. Immovable object, meet unstoppable force. Seam. Swing. Attack. Defence. Cuts played while in the air. Balls angled in from wide of the stump. Bruised ribs. Bruised feet.
The seaming ball isn’t Cummins’s only offence. He can occasionally get the ball to swing. He can bowl yorkers. He can bowl bouncers. The bat isn’t Pujara’s only defence. There’s his shoulder, where he will often allow a bouncer to hit him. His arm guard is traditional, full length. The modern player shortens that item, or eschews it completely. For Pujara, it is as good as a shield. According to CricViz, Pujara was hit on the body or the helmet 14 times across the four matches.
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The numbers say Cummins had the better of Pujara in the series: five dismissals in eight innings. In the first two Tests, Cummins got him three times, exploiting the outside edge with the ball that seams away after angling in. After that, Pujara adjusted, his back-foot technique allowing him time to look for the second line of the ball rather than the first. Thinner edges became thicker ones, which Pujara’s soft hands and defensive bat ensured did not carry to the slips. He survived longer. After averaging 60.5 balls per innings in the first two Tests, he averaged 171.5 balls per innings in the next two, his shortest stay at the crease in those being 94 balls. Balls meant presence, presence meant frustration and fatigue for the opposition.
That brought the Bodyline tactics we saw yesterday, with Pujara wearing more than nine blows on the body in a single day, six from -- who else -- Cummins. A few were Pujara’s intentional cold shoulder; deliberate acts of evasion, eyes watching till the ball thudded into his body. But some were pure survival, eyes running for cover. Like the two times he was hit on the helmet by -- who else -- Cummins.
The dance finally ended in a passage of play that was as visually breathtaking as it was skillfully mesmerising. Cummins stood with the last new ball in hand, the sun shining down. Pujara took guard with a light rain falling. A sun shower bringing together for the last time the only two lights that have burned through every Test of this series. He Who Shall Not Be Moved facing He Who Shall Not Be Stopped. Pujara was extinguished by a scrambled seam ball from Cummins that came in. Cummins was exhausted by a result no one saw coming.