Waiting game leaves India hurting at SCG
- India in trouble as they add 148 runs in 55.4 overs after Pujara’s slowest Test fifty with Pant, Jadeja injured
For Cheteshwar Pujara, it is always a battle of attrition. His knack is to dig deep and outlast the most relentless of attacks. That quality was central to India returning with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy the last time they toured Australia two years ago.
That team though had Virat Kohli coming at No.4, after Pujara. To the latter’s slow-kill approach, the India skipper plays the enforcer. This time, Kohli went on paternity leave after the first Test. That means the specialist batsmen following Pujara are stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane and Hanuma Vihari—three batsmen of pretty much the same mould.
Resuming 242 runs behind Australia’s first innings 338 on Day 3 of the third Test, against a Pat Cummins-led attack that constantly tested the batsmen with short, incoming deliveries, India missed a batsman who could complement Pujara’s ultra-cautious approach. And the innings went nowhere as India were 244 all out, conceding a 94-run lead.
Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne then shared an unbeaten 68-run stand to extend the lead to 197 runs with eight wickets in hand. With injuries to Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja, the visitors face an uphill task on a Sydney Cricket Ground pitch of some uneven bounce with two days to go.
Overnight batsmen Ajinkya Rahane and Pujara are the most experienced and are at the centre of India’s batting approach. A lot depended on how they would negate the pacers in the morning. With the pitch offering variable bounce, Cummins in particular cramped them for space with rising deliveries angled into the body.
Rahane being the centurion in the previous Test and Pujara’s record of blunting any bowling attack instilled the belief that scoring only 20 runs in the first nine overs was part of a bigger plan. Neither attempting the pull shot—openers Shubman Gill and Rohit Sharma had used it on Day 2—also seemed a ploy to bide time against a tight attack.
But if India’s second innings in Adelaide, where they were bundled out for 36, has taught one thing it is that for all the seemingly impenetrable technique, it takes one good ball to end a batsman’s stay. Cummins did that to Rahane with a short ball that bounced lower than expected. Rahane attempted to cut and played onto the stumps. That brought the cautious Vihari to the crease.
Against Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood, Pujara and Vihari continued in the same defensive fashion, until the fast bowler produced a direct hit from mid-off to catch Vihari short attempting a non-existent single. Was it the pressure of scoring amid Pujara’s defensive approach?
“You know he (Pujara) is going to hang around, as long as you are controlling the scoreboard (it is fine). At one stage, he had been out there for 200 or 150 balls and I looked up there thinking they are still 200 away from our first-innings total,” Cummins said after stumps.
For a fielding side that was criticised for being slack at the MCG for dropped catches, Australia pulled off two more run outs—Ravichandran Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah.
Before that, Pant had the chance to silence critics of his keeping by dominating the bowling. The early signs were good and a shift in scoring momentum was evident. He created room outside off and used the uppercut against the short ball as India went from 96/2 overnight to 180/4 at lunch with a lot to look forward to.
Cummins, however, left Pant shaken after the break with a short ball that struck his left elbow as he missed a pull shot. He was visibly in pain, and though he continued after the physio attended to him, Pant never looked comfortable. And two balls after Pujara completed his slowest Test half-century, off 174 balls, Pant was caught at slip going for an expansive drive off Hazlewood. India’s only half-century stand of Day 3 had been broken at 195.
“Ball of the series”
“I thought losing Rishabh was the turnaround. If we had another partnership there, we would have definitely put on a decent total. Our aim was to get 330-340 but we missed out,” said Pujara, who was out to Cummins the next over without a run added. It bore a striking resemblance to four of his five dismissals by Cummins in this series—back of length delivery with extra bounce that tilted away late to take the edge, this time to wicket-keeper Tim Paine.
“I think that was the best ball of the series,” Pujara said after play. “I couldn’t have done anything better even if I was batting on a hundred or a double hundred. I don’t think I could have survived that particular ball, which kicked from back of a length. I had to play that ball. And there was extra bounce. I couldn’t get away with that.”
A bowler short
Pant was taken to hospital for scans and didn’t keep wicket in the second innings with Wriddhiman Saha taking over. To hurt India further, Ravindra Jadeja was struck on the left thumb by a Mitchell Starc delivery. He bravely stayed on to bring down Australia’s lead to less than 100, but couldn’t bowl and also went for scans.
Their most successful bowler in the first innings out left India with four bowlers. Though both Australian openers were gone by the 10th over with only 35 runs on board, Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne continued in the same vein as the first innings to put the hosts on course for a big lead.