India vs Australia, 3rd Test: Cheteshwar Pujara helps India stay in contention with 'meditative' batting
'Meditative' is a word that became quite overused in the commentary box as the innings extended, and it exactly describes the zen-like way Pujara played on the day.
It was one of those days where control of the game swung from one side to the other — not at the frenetic speed of Pune or even Bangalore, but at a much slower pace that made each swing of fortunes that much more surprising.
India looked in total control this morning with Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara settling down, using the first hour to get into the game, then the second over to step up the pace of scoring just a tad, without risk, to stay on top of things. Just when it looked like India had a stranglehold, though, Murali Vijay had a bit of a brain fade, going down the track in the final over before lunch, making a meal of the charge and getting stumped by a mile.
The game was nice and evenly balanced at the start of the second session — and then Virat Kohli in his turn had a brain fade, driving at Cummins, wide of his body, to a ball angling slightly in from a sixth stump line into just outside off — a mode of dismissal that seemed a bit of an aberration earlier in this series but is now assuming the air of a definite virus. That wicket seemed to give Australia control; Rahane and Pujara promptly dispelled that notion, the latter in particular shifting from a somnolent first gear to a fairly frenetic fifth gear with no warning, taking just 59 balls for his first 50 post lunch where, earlier, he had taken over 120 balls for his first 40.
Again, India in control, or so you thought — and Rahane threw it away, playing a needless ramp at a short, wide ball from Cummins — so wide in fact that it would have been called had the toe end of Rahane's bat not tickled it through to Wade. At that point, India had given Australia three wickets in the day without the bowling doing anything to deserve it.
A solid 44-run partnership between Karun Nair and Pujara brought India back into the game, and then one interesting over came out of nowhere. Josh Hazelwood had looked underdone all afternoon, just there or thereabouts at middling pace, looking as though he was just going through the motions. The 92nd over of the day, Hazelwood ran in, Nair bailed out at the last second, apparently distracted by the white covers blowing off the advertising boards below the sight screen. Hazelwood took umbrage, coming down the track a bit to ask Nair if he really wanted him to go back to the top of the run and do a do-over; he then banged one in and hurried Nair on the evasion, and out of nowhere produced a beauty, at pace, hitting the perfect back of good length and darting in off the seam to go right through the batsman's defence to hit top of off — classic fast bowler's dismissal, coming out of nowhere.
Ashwin never looked in — par for this series, really, where with the bat he has looked a shadow of the well organised batsman he has earlier shown himself to be. A good bouncer by Cummins, and a good review by the Aussies for caught behind off the glove, got rid of him — and then India took back a measure of control with an unbeaten 32-run partnership between Wriddhiman Saha and Pujara, with neither batsman looking in any degree of discomfort against either pace or spin.
The narrative of the day had to be Cummins — returning to international cricket after a 64-Test break spanning five and a half years, he finished the day with four wickets, to go with the six-wicket haul he got when he last bowled at the top level. Two of the wickets were pure gifts, certainly, but Cummins through the day was pacy, very intelligent in the way he played around with lines and lengths and even speeds, using the slow ball, the slower bouncer, the real quick yorker and every variation in between to ensure that no batsman ever felt really set against him, in each of his spells.
And if Cummins was the fairytale, Pujara was — what's the word? A throwback to an age where the grammar of Test cricket hadn't been diluted by limited overs mindsets. He has now played 328 deliveries across seven hours — and throughout his stay, against pace, against spin, he played his own game. Easily defensive to anything that was not certifiably loose, quick as you like to spot any sort of error in line or length or even pace, working the ball busily around the field for singles, hitting emphatic strokes for each of his 17 boundaries whenever the bowler afforded him opportunities. "Meditative" is a word that became quite overused in the commentary box as the innings extended, and it exactly describes the zen-like way Pujara played on the day.
The third day was supposed to be determinative; instead, it has left the game delicately balanced. Australia are 91 ahead and into the Indian lower order; with rest overnight, they can come back in the morning and try to smash out those four wickets quick — in which case, with a lead of over 50, they could see themselves as in with a chance.
Against that, if India bat on this way, and time and deficit bleeds, it shuts the door on Australia's ability to put up a quick second innings score and take a shot at India. And from that point, India knows that the game is a draw at worst, and if they can trigger an Australian collapse, they can even pull off an unexpected win.
It is an intriguing balance, and — okay, here we go again with one of the perennial truisms of Test cricket — the first hour of the morning tomorrow will pretty much tell you which way this will go.
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