Cheteshwar Pujara doesn’t just score hundreds against Australia. By now, Australia will be well aware of it.
The India No. 3 has touched three figures only twice against the Aussies; if it was 204 in Hyderabad four years back, then he topped that up with 202 at the JSCA International Stadium on an overcast Sunday (March 19) as the feeble sun struggled in vain to break free from the thick but unthreatening cloud cover that hung over a good-sized holiday crowd.
Pujara’s third Test double and the increasingly impressive Wriddhiman Saha’s third Test hundred completely transformed the vibe around the third Test. India had been behind the eight-ball for a major part after Steven Smith won the toss on Thursday morning; for the first time in the game, as the seventh-wicket pair grew in magnitude and stature on day four, Australia felt the heat with the hunted easing into the role of the hunter.
Australia had started the morning gung-go, India still 91 behind after closing the third evening on 360 for 6 in response to 451. A reasonably early strike would have allowed Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood a tilt at the bowlers to come. On paper, it was a sound theory; only, the Australians hadn’t entirely accounted for Pujara’s magnificence and Saha’s pluck, which, together, translated into a record 199-run association for the seventh wicket.
Virat Kohli applied the closure at 603 for 9 – the third time this season that his side had conceded 400 bowling first, and then replied with 600-plus – to give his spinners eight overs in which to make capital of the 152-run advantage.
Ravindra Jadeja made the most of that little period to knock over David Warner and Nathan Lyon, the nightwatchman, as Australia hobbled to 23 for 2 at close, still 128 behind. Warner’s was a particularly devastating blow because Australia’s worst fears – the rough – came back to haunt it, the ball fizzing off the disturbed surface to uproot off-stump. Lyon simply had no chance against what became the last ball of the day, a ripping off-break that drifted in and turned away. Ideal end to India’s day, the worst note on which to head back for Australia, which had already wilted under the Pujara-Saha tandem.
Having joined hands at 328 for 6 with a sizeable deficit staring India in the face, Pujara and Saha first defied, then frustrated and finally mastered the bowling attack. As the mood in the Indian camp began to lighten, Australia traversed the other end of the spectrum, dispirited, disheartened and eventually dishevelled. Cummins looked tired and deflated, Hazlewood no more than honest, and neither Steve O’Keefe nor Lyon posed a consistent threat, tired fingers and stout-hearted resistance as much of a dampener as a day-four surface that was still far from the predicted minefield.
Pujara was once again spectacular, but it wasn’t the flashy kind of spectacular. As watchful as a hawk, he put his vast array of strokes on the back-burner as the early onus was on keeping his wicket intact. There was just one boundary in the first session when he pulled a long-hop from O’Keefe wide of mid-on; otherwise, he alternated between studied defence and the working of the gaps, the deliberateness to his every act the perfect giveaway that he was not going to give it away.
Saha was a little more enterprising, but only by comparison. The wicketkeeper-batsman survived a massive scare off the day’s seventh delivery – and Cummins’s first – when falling over to an inswinger, he was adjudged leg before by Chris Gaffaney. Saha immediately opted for the review and was proved right, with the ball headed down leg. The little fella celebrated the reprieve by crashing the next delivery through covers for four, almost an aberration in a session that only saw two fours and a six as the glamour shots were temporarily jettisoned.
The energy visibly went out of Australia with every strong defensive stroke, every stolen single. Suddenly, even though the scoreboard wasn’t rattling along, run-denial became the primary focus, though Saha did mock that plan by slamming Lyon way over long-on and then quickly completing the single that took him to his fifth fifty.
Immediately thereafter, Pujara used the DRS to excellent effect on being adjudged leg before to Lyon, bowling round, by Ian Gould. The ball had pitched on off, as replays confirmed, but turned enough to comfortably miss leg, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, Matthew Wade couldn’t hang on to an outside edge offered by Saha off O’Keefe five deliveries later.
By lunch, despite India only adding 75 and still trailing by 16, the mood had completely changed. The third new-ball, taken soon on resumption, brought an immediate acceleration as three boundaries came in as many overs, but that too was a false dawn as both batsmen retreated into their shells the deeper the session unspooled.
The relative go-slow – only 143 runs for no wickets in 58 runs in the first two sessions – didn’t faze the crowd, which seemed to sense that an entertaining extended last passage of play was on the cards. Saha, 99 at tea, brought up his century almost at once with a single behind square, a wonderful compilation of great skill, tremendous resolve and excellent defence on a still slow but wearing surface. He then swapped caution for adventurism while Pujara chugged along merrily. When he safely negotiated his 496th delivery, he had played the longest innings in terms of deliveries faced by an Indian batsman, relegating Rahul Dravid’s 495-ball 270 against Pakistan in Rawalpindi to the background.
Those were all immaterial so far as he was concerned; it wasn’t mission accomplished yet, but it would soon be as he whipped Lyon to deep mid-wicket for the single that brought run No. 200, and the crowd to its feet for the second time in a brief while.
By now, with the lead already 70, India was looking to accelerate, but sensibly so. It wasn’t an attempt to up the ante that eventually led to Pujara’s downfall, after 12 hours and 12 minutes at the crease during which he defied 525 deliveries with the broadest of bats. A little extra bounce for Lyon saw the ball balloon to Glenn Maxwell at mid-wicket off the intended punch to leg, and Pujara departed to a rapturous ovation after having made sure only one team could win the game. Saha followed not long after, going inside-out against O’Keefe and finding cover, but there was more despair for Australia in store as Jadeja helped himself to a wonderful fifty full of muscular strokes, each one a dagger in Australia’s already bleeding heart.
It is bowler Jadeja, however, that Australia will be wary off on the final day. Having already cleaned up one left-hander, the left-arm spinner will be a threat to the four others in the line-up, given the friendly rough outside the off-stump that will brook some tackling. Smith will hold the key to whether Australia go to Dharamsala with the series still level 1-1. Monday should be another gripping day in a Test full of absorbing, compelling cricket.