If India had got its favorite Bollywood fabulist to script the day, it would have read like this: India, starting the day 91 runs behind with just four wickets in hand, will add 243 runs for the loss of just three wickets. That score will include a magnificent double century for one batsman, a century for another, a whirlwind unbeaten fifty for a third. In the process, they will show yet again that on any track where a visiting team is good enough to get 400+, the home side can crack 600 with something still left in the tank. It will then declare with a lead of 150-plus (my optimistic back of envelope scratches before play began had India 100 up), still leaving itself a few hours for a crack at the opposition. And then its irrepressible left-arm spinner, with five-for and a 50 off 51 balls under his belt, will come out there and crack the opposing team opener, taking out one hard hitting opener and one night-watchman with the most perfect deliveries you want to see.
If fable translated into fact, it owed to one man: Cheteshwar Pujara. Who batted on, and on, and on, scattering records like chaff — more time at the crease than any Indian batsman ever, more balls faced than any Indian batsmen ever, an innings that was a monument to patience and concentration, a masterclass in Test batting the old-fashioned way, a knock that, for its influence on the game and for the way it totally turned the Test on its axis, will rank with VVS Laxman’s legendary 261 15 years ago against the same opposition.
But it was not about that, really. At least, not entirely. It was not that Pujara batted as if he could bat in that same vein for all five days if he was allowed to. It was, more importantly, that he made Wriddhiman Saha believe he could bat endlessly too.
There was a moment in the 171st over when Saha seemed to be getting a bit fidgety. The Australians had managed to keep the runs down throughout the day, using pace at one end and restrictive spin at the other, making the Indians work for every single run. Saha seemed to feel the pressure.
In that over, to O’Keefe’s relentless line on or outside leg stump, which Pujara was mostly content to pad away, Saha skipped down the track and swung hard, hitting out of the rough, against the turn, in the air and was lucky to see it fall out of reach of short midwicket. To the very next ball he jumped out again, trying the same shot, swinging even harder this time — and got a thick outside edge to send the ball flying in the opposite direction, being very lucky to clear mid-off.
The batsmen took three as Warner chased it down, and Pujara immediately waved his partner over for a prolonged, earnest mid-wicket chat. Who knows what the senior batsman told his impetuous partner, but Saha spent the next 18 balls he faced in studied, almost ostentatious, defence before he indulged himself with a little ramp to a short ball from Hazlewood down to third man for a brace.
That was Pujara’s real influence — not that he believed, not that he had the mental fortitude to bat as long as it took, to dig as deep as it took to pull his side out of a potentially losing position and into the box seat, but that he made his partner believe, and focus, and dedicate himself to the task.
The Pujara innings will draw accolades from everyone – commentators, analysts, statisticians, fans. But what sticks out for me was the moment of his dismissal, well into his 11th hour at the crease. The Indian dressing room had clearly sent a message to both batsmen to get on with it; Pujara played an uncharacteristic heave and got away with it, then he played an onside chip from well outside off, a shot he would never have thought of playing — and never, in fact, played on any one of the 524 balls he had faced previously — and chipped straight to midwicket.
His reaction was illuminating — he looked up, screamed at himself in frustration, and slapped his bat hard against his pad in anger. It was not enough that he had believed himself capable of playing a marathon of the kind that is going out of style in Test cricket; he wanted more. Equally illuminating was the fact that Glenn Maxwell, the man who took that catch, came running over to shake Pujara’s hand before joining his mates in muted celebration. The Aussies clapped him off the square — tribute to an innings that made even the team at the receiving end appreciate the effort.
Saha did admirably to keep Pujara company, repeatedly and often visibly checking his baser instincts, keeping a tight rein on his strokes, particularly his tendency to launch into the sweep at the first sign of a spinner, and bat on, and on, through the first session, then the second session and into the third, intent on doing his bit to the team cause.
Equally noticeable was the Umesh Yadav-Ravi Jadeja partnership. Umesh started off in his slapdash fashion, swinging away with a lot of effort for very little, someone in the team dressing room sent out a rocket disguised as a bottle of water, and Yadav immediately retooled, settled into an almost ostentatious defence and kept his end up while Jadeja played with freedom at the other, getting the team the quick runs needed to put up a formidable lead with time to spare.
The Australians held their nerve throughout arguably the most heartbreaking day of cricket they will have played in a long time, more so coming after two Tests where they dominated more sessions than the home side. And two players deserve special mention: Pat Cummins, back in international cricket after injury breaks lasting five and a half years, and bowling his heart out on a heartless pitch that gave him little, but out of which he somehow magically extracted much. The other hero for Australia was left arm spinner O’Keefe. With Nathan Lyon still nursing his blistered spinning finger, O’Keefe was the boy on the burning deck for his side, wheeling away relentlessly for an incredible 77 overs as Australia out of the record 210 overs the team ended up bowling. If Pujara’s innings was a monument to concentration, O’Keefe’s spell was no less — it showcased a player with a heart as large as all outdoors.
And just to round off a perfect day, Jadeja closed it out with an exhibition of left arm spin. Against David Warner the left hander, he was in his element, bowling over the wicket, into the rough. He hit it with laser-like accuracy (when he was batting and O’Keefe made a few jump out of that same spot, Jadeja was seen nodding to himself, walking down to the spot, almost like he was committing it to memory). Out of there, he made it turn in sharply, through Warner’s defensive push, through the gap between bat and body, and onto the stumps.
When the right handed Nathan Lyon came to do guard duty for the night, Jadeja immediately went around the wicket, drifted the ball across onto a middle stump line, this time all craft no rough, made the ball hit the deck, break back, glide past the angled defensive bat and hit the top of off. Two deliveries of the sort you dream of — in fact, of the kind O’Keefe spent 77 overs searching for, two wickets, Australia 129 behind with eight wickets left…
As total, as complete, a turnaround as a Test has taken in course of a single day’s play, that. Fabulists hardly dare write such scripts, for being thought too over the top.