Cricket

India vs Australia: Pujara, Pant and a song of fire and ice in visitors' Houdini act

  • Yash Jha
  • January 11th, 2021
  • 17:43:39 IST

Guts, gumption, grace, and glory.

Yes, it was a draw. But think about it.

A team without its captain and best batsman, without three of its four first-choice fast bowlers, without its on-song all-rounder for half the game, while encountering racial abuse, in the middle of countless quarantines and endless bubble-living, barely three weeks out from hitting their nadir, facing arguably the best bowling attack in the world, at a ground where no team had batted more than 130 overs in the fourth innings in nearly six decades, in a country where only two teams had batted more than 130 overs in the fourth innings in three decades, in a series where no team had batted more than 115 overs in any innings.

Could it be any more glorious?

The Monday Miracle. The Sydney Spectacle. The Great Escape.

On four pillars stood India’s Houdini act on day five in Sydney – Hanuma Vihari’s unbeaten 23 off 161 balls ought to be immortalised, and his association of 42.4 overs with R Ashwin (India’s second-longest fourth innings stand for the sixth wicket or below in Tests) made the improbable possible.

Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant were instrumental in India's rearguard in Sydney. Image: AP

Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant were instrumental in India's rearguard in Sydney. Image: AP

Before that, another partnership had made the unthinkable thinkable. Between two men whose methods seem to be the source of endless debate, whose respective approaches split two severe extremes of cricketing conversation down the middle.

As of Saturday, it appeared as though there was no one more culpable for India’s batting fortunes than Cheteshwar Pujara. He had been the joint top-scorer of the Indian first innings – but having scored the slowest half-century of his Test career, the man-of-the-series from India’s maiden Test series win on Australian soil two years ago, apparently, was increasing the pressure on his teammates and keeping Australia in the game.

Alongside Pujara, 10 balls into the mountainous final day at the SCG, was Rishabh Pant – who, in the last 18 months of an international career still barely three years old, has polarised opinion like few Indian cricketers ever have.

There couldn’t, arguably, be two more contrasting characters. Somewhere between Pujara and Pant, possibly, lies the utopian definition of that ‘intent’ word that gets thrown around every day in cricketing circles.

Why utopian? Well, whoever said there was one correct way in this game that’s always been known as one of glorious uncertainties?

And so they combined. Yin and yang. Zen and zany. Block and bludgeon. Left and right. Oh, what a sight!

Although, for the first 45-odd minutes of their union, you might’ve thought Pant had bought into the Pujara school as he accumulated five runs from his first 34 balls. You look at the first session and see that India gathered 108 runs in 36 overs – but in the first 13 of those overs, they had only taken 18.

Pant is the only Indian wicketkeeper with a Test century in England, and the only Indian wicketkeeper with a Test century in Australia. He achieved both within the first six months of his Test career. But to those who don’t want to buy into his mode, both came on ‘roads’ – there was nothing to lose at The Oval, and the bowlers had been blocked into submission before he came to bat at the SCG (in 2019), they say.

His latest effort, fortunately, will pass off as ‘challenging’ in everyone’s books. And look what his mode enabled during that frenetic passage of about two hours, either side of lunch, on Monday.

Nathan Lyon is Australia’s fourth innings failsafe in home Tests. Discounting the Melbourne Test two weeks ago, where India were only chasing 70, Lyon had figures of 5/50, 4/81, and 4/63 in his three most recent fourth innings spells at home.

After taking only three runs from the first 21 balls Lyon bowled to him, Pant decided to take him on. The next 37 balls in the head-to-head went for 46. But more crucially, twice in quick succession in the first session, Pant had forced Lyon out of the attack. That is impact.

Of course, Lyon ‘had the last laugh’. But to borrow from another cliché, you live by the sword, you die by the sword. And while Pant’s blade was alive in the contest, the near-impossible – a successful 400+ chase – couldn’t be written off. At 250/3, with more than 50 overs still to play, even the fiercest of Aussie voices on commentary were beginning to shake a little.

The Pujara-Pant partnership finished on 148 runs from 43.3 overs – Pujara 24 off 106 balls, Pant 97 off 118. Utopian balance, eh? It was India’s second-highest fourth innings stand ever in Australia, and their third-highest fourth innings stand anywhere since 2009.

Pujara put all the talks about his intent to bed with a superlative 77 in the second innings. Image: AP

Pujara put all the talks about his intent to bed with a superlative 77 in the second innings. Image: AP

But just as you had thought Pant was borrowing a leaf from Pujara’s playbook at the start of it, the roles seemingly reversed at its conclusion, because Pujara hit three consecutive boundaries off Pat Cummins’ second over with the second new ball, taken an over after Pant’s dismissal. The same Cummins against whom Pujara had scored 21/4 in 23 overs in the series, coming into the final day’s play at Sydney.

That was Pujara’s Pant moment, but the result India managed to achieve arrived out of Pujara’s Pujara moments – all 350+ of them, over the course of the Test. 127 runs off 381 balls, strike rate 33.33. Who’s complaining about that now? The question to all pundits – from keyboard warriors to cricketing warhorses – is the same: Could India have batted out the 230+ overs they did to save the Test without the ways of Che?

In the 21st century, there have only been 20 instances of a visiting batsman playing more than 350 balls in a Test in Australia. The only man to have done so thrice is Cheteshwar Pujara. The games in question? Adelaide 2018, Sydney 2019, Sydney 2021 – a series-opening win, a series-clinching draw, and now this. That, too, is impact.

77(205) and 97(118). Divided by intent, united by impact.

We’ll never quite settle on the universal tenet of intent. But impact? You’ll find that’s an infinitely more agreeable concept, largely due to its tangibility.

Maybe it’s time for a new favourite buzzword, cricket?

Updated Date: January 11, 2021 17:43:39 IST

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