Cheteshwar Pujara approaches batting with the precision, meticulousness and attention to detail of an astrophysicist. To him, batting isn’t just a vocation, it is almost an obsession. And, as oppositions have found out over the years, it is anything but unhealthy as far as the batsman himself is concerned.
In some ways, M Vijay too is from the Pujara school of batting, but in many other ways, he is as different from the Saurashtrian as chalk from cheese. Blessed with an elegance to die for and a languidness that is almost the exclusive domain of batsmen from the subcontinent, he is also prone to moments of recklessness.
It was on this paradoxical duo of similarities and opposites that India’s hopes rested when the middle, moving day of the third Test got going at the JSCA International Stadium on Saturday (March 18). India was 120 for 1 overnight, a solid base from which to hunt down Australia’s 451.
Vijay and Pujara relish batting alongside each other, and despite several close calls in an absorbing morning session, ground out a ninth century stand together. Then, at the stroke of lunch, Vijay jumped out to Steve O’Keefe, missed the line of the ball and was stumped by a mile to give Australia just the fillip it needed.
The rest of the day was about Pujara and Pat Cummins (4 for 59), the towering paceman playing his first Test since his stirring debut in Johannesburg in November 2011. While the rest floundered around him, Pujara held firm with his 11th Test hundred; Cummins, for his part, extracted life from a surface that continued to defy predictions, but which has slowed down considerably after having started slow in the first place.
Cummins more than anyone else was responsible for keeping India, looking at a first-innings lead at various stages in the first two sessions, down to 360 for 6 at stumps, behind by 91. Pujara, singularly, ensured that India got at least that many, his commitment to the cause commendable and his focus single-minded as he finished on an epic 130, his fourth Test ton this home season.
Pujara is from an old-fashioned school that believes in giving the bowler early respect, setting his ego aside and allowing himself the opportunity to work out the bowling, the conditions and who is getting how much purchase from the track. He is at his most vulnerable when he is new at the crease, and at the start of each session – like most batsmen are – but when he beds in, he is extremely hard to winkle out.
His battles with Cummins and Josh Hazlewood were as intriguing as had been his early exchanges with O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon, extremely dangerous at the start of the day. As is sometimes his wont, Vijay exploded without warning. In the day’s second over, he smashed O’Keefe over long-on for a giant six, but then immediately went into his shell as O’Keefe and Hazlewood settled into a nice rhythm.
India made slow progress in the first hour – just 24 runs from 16 overs. Early into the second hour, Pujara survived a review for leg-before off O’Keefe.
When he was 58 from 150 deliveries, Vijay cut loose. There had been concerns that the shoulder injury that kept him out of the Bangalore Test might prevent him from playing the sweep, but Vijay quickly set those doubts to rest with a calculated assault on the two spinners to race into the 80s.
Padded up and awaiting his chance, Virat Kohli would have been grateful for every extra minute he was kept in the changing-room when Vijay charged O’Keefe and walked past the ball. 102 had come for the second wicket but in his 50th Test, Vijay had tossed his hand – and a century -- away.
Kohli walked in and was immediately treated to sumptuous strokeplay as Pujara switched gears. On a 139-ball 40 at lunch, Pujara donned his dancing shoes to the spinners to bring up his fifty in 155 deliveries and then up the ante. Kohli, seemingly untroubled by his own shoulder injury, quietly moved to six when the second new ball became available, and put Cummins in business immediately.
To his first taste of both the new cherry and the returning paceman, Kohli’s loose drive picked out his opposite number at second slip. India was still 226 behind, and even though the team had the batting resources, it now had to contend with a transformed, re-energised Cummins.
If it was the full ball that brought him Kohli’s scalp, Cummins was at his most dangerous when he banged the ball in and got it to climb alarmingly even from this docile strip. He flagged neither in pace nor energy, helped along by the fact that Smith used him in short bursts until a final six-over spell which netted him the stick of R Ashwin, consigned to another batting failure. Long before that, he had Ajinkya Rahane caught behind on the ramp, the third of three loose shots in the first two sessions that threatened to undo Pujara’s watchful industry.
Karun Nair once again looked in good nick and helped add 44 for the fifth, enveloping his mate in a huge embrace when Pujara creamed Cummins through the covers to bring up a fabulous century. It was the first three-figure knock by an Indian batsman this series; having been dismissed in the 90s for the first time in the last Test, Pujara wasn’t going to deny himself this time around.
Fifty through 100 had taken Pujara just 59 deliveries, but when Nair was bowled off his pad by a reverse-swinging delivery from Hazlewood, he was forced to revisit his approach. Australia bottled one end up through O’Keefe’s run-denying left-arm over angle, and attacked at the other with Cummins and Hazlewood. Suddenly, as the shadows lengthened, India’s scoring was reduced to the trickle of the first hour.
Australia's bowlers were disciplined all day long with Cummins magnificent, and with a bit of luck, could have had more to show in the wickets column. Lyon was probably the most unfortunate as he finished with 0 for 82 from 24 overs, still looking for his first wicket since taking 8 for 50 on day one of the second Test.
As for India, it will have to keep an eye on both the score board and the clock. The longer the batsmen can keep Australia on the park and the narrower the deficit, the greater its chances of coming away unscathed. But as history indicates, things can unravel at breakneck speed on days four and five in the subcontinent.