The main lesson of the first innings of India vs Australia Test in Adelaide was the contrasting approaches to batting that was on view. On the one hand there was India's number three batsman, Cheteshwar Pujara: steady, judicious, focused and disciplined. On the other laid the rest of India’s batting unit: erratic, injudicious and undisciplined. We all know which side won. Pujara constructed a patient, hugely important century. The other batsmen, in the spirit of the approaching season, gifted their wickets to their grateful hosts.
So unpardonable was the Indian batting in the first innings that it was difficult to say who got out to the worst shot. The first four wickets, those of KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, all fell to loose drives to deliveries that could have been easily ignored. The prize for most reckless, however, has to go to Rohit Sharma.
Pigeonholed, with good reason, as a player not suited for Tests, the classy Mumbai batsman began well and seemed, for the most part, to be progressing steadily and without difficulty. His strokes were as effortless and as unhurried as ever. There was one lazy lofted drive over cover for six, one that reminded all of the dominant, feared, white-ball batsman that he is.
But then, immediately after escaping being caught on the boundary he attempted an onside slog that landed into the lap of the deep square-leg fielder, a shot that reminded us that he is not a man to be entrusted with a serious job. Singling out Rohit for special mention is hardly fair considering a number of his colleagues were similarly profligate with their wickets, yet his indiscretion added to a developing narrative of a player somehow not equipped for Tests despite his limited overs prowess.
There can be little doubt that cricket’s longest format has been impacted by its shortest. Not only are there players -- David Warner being one -- who came to Test cricket through the T20 door, but the modern Test batsman has generally been more adventurous than his predecessor. The modern batsman is willing and more capable of clearing the boundary, and so sixes are no longer the rarity they had been in the past.
Recently, in Dhaka, West Indies batsman Shimron Hetmyer, made 93 against Bangladesh in a manner that would hardly have been out of place in a T20 game. Containing nine sixes and a single four, it is the kind of innings the purists scoff at. It is the kind of innings Indian wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant attempts to play almost every time he takes guard, yet it is the kind of innings that’s becoming more and more commonplace.
What Pujara did in Adelaide, scoring 123 in the first innings and 71 in the second, was to remind us of the value of an old-fashioned approach to Test-match batting. The kind associated with the likes of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Geoffrey Boycott. The kind which emphasizes the value of occupation of the crease.
Both of Pujara’s innings in Adelaide plotted a route for India to escape the early peril brought about by the foolishness of its flashier batsmen. But they were also more than that. They were a riposte to those who often accused the batsman of lacking intent because of his propensity to do his utmost to hold on to his wicket, even if it means remaining scoreless for long periods. His batting was a revolt against the idea of relentless attack, the notion that the batsman should always seek to be dominant.
The traditional norms of Test-match batting have been under assault. Many of us now look askance at the batsman resolved to batting time and frown upon those who base their game firstly on defence. Pujara underlined the worth of the batsman capable of battling tough bowling and tough conditions. He underlined the importance of a tight technique allied with an unwavering mind.
Like a survivalist stuck in the wild, knowing which plants are good for food and which are best ignored, Pujara was quick to recognize the deliveries fraught with menace and those off which he could feed. His shot selection was, in its way, breathtakingly brilliant, for though his first priority might have been to defend, he was quick to seize the obvious scoring opportunity, such as when the bowler pitched too short or too full.
The use of his feet to Lyon, who was Australia’s most threatening bowler, was excellent in its execution and groundbreaking in its regularity. It is doubtful he had used his feet as much to spin before and his battle with Lyon was a most intriguing contest. Often, batsmen use their feet to attack spinners; Pujara came down the pitch mostly to defend, and, importantly, to deny Lyon the use of the rough patch outside the righthander’s off-stump. Lyon eventually got him for 70 in the second innings. By that time, however, the batsman had scored 194 runs in the game.
Pujara’s impact on the game was highlighted by Kohli’s modified approach in the second innings. India’s captain and the game’s premier batsman made 34 off 104 balls, a strike rate of 32.69, slower than Pujara’s 34.8. Kohli's buzzword is 'intent' with aggression being the mantra, and quite often, Pujara is criticised for his lack thereof, as well as his inability to keep the scoreboard ticking regularly. It is therefore very interesting that after most members of his batting unit failed with that approach in the first innings, he adopted the Saurashtra batsman's methods in the second.
Pujara top-scored in both innings not just in Indian innings but overall in the Test. Without his contributions, India would likely have lost rather than won at Adelaide. Maybe now he will be fully appreciated for the formidable batsman that he is rather than pilloried for not being the one they want him to be. Maybe now they will leave him alone.