India vs Australia: Cheteshwar Pujara's marathon knock sets up exciting finale to boring Ranchi Test
n the unlikely event that Australia are bundled out on this pitch and India claim a win, even if a bowler took 10 wickets, the man most responsible would be Pujara.
Test cricket’s real appeal isn’t that it has some rich history or gentlemanly conduct - this series has proved that isn’t true. The real reason we all love it is because it reflects life. Sometimes it is fair, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes everything happens fast, sometimes it drags on and on.
And sometimes. more often than any of us would like to admit, it is boring. The fourth day in Ranchi had many good things going for it, but entertainment wasn’t one of them. Instead we saw Cheteshwar Pujara put together a defensive batting masterclass. It was hugely impressive, but it was dull.
Pujara faced 525 balls, the most ever faced by an Indian batsman in a Test match innings, going past the 495 that Rahul Dravid faced when he got to 270 against Pakistan in 2004. He defended or left more than half of the balls he faced. It wasn’t until he passed 200 that he looked to attack, and almost as soon as he did, he got out. He tried to hit Nathan Lyon over mid-wicket and spooned a catch to Glenn Maxwell at mid-wicket. It was a tame end to a brilliant innings that was as much about what Pujara didn’t do as it was about what he did.
The complete control he had over his batting was as beautiful as it was glacial. Nothing got to Pujara while he was at the crease, and that zen-like quality is what allowed him to bat for more than 160 overs in the middle. In the process, he became the leading run scorer for India during their home season, passing Virat Kohli. He has scored 1259 Test runs since September, facing 2628 balls. This innings of 202 might not be his most fluent, and it certainly isn’t his most memorable, but it could well be match defining if this pitch deteriorates on the final day.
That is a big if as this surface continues to give very little to the bowlers, and not much more to the batsmen. It is as difficult to time the ball with the bat as it is to get it to deviate off the straight. Even with two Australian wickets that turned slightly out of the rough, this is still a surface on which batting for a long time should be possible.
The only bowler who has looked like he can take wickets is Pat Cummins, but the fragile fast bowler still got through 39 overs in this innings for just four wickets. How well he holds up to that level of workload remains to be seen.
While Cummins was pummeled, Maxwell was hardly used. Maxwell’s off spin was given just four overs in the 210 that Australia sent down in this Indian innings. Steve O’Keefe sent down 77 overs, Nathan Lyon 46. It is unlikely that Maxwell would have spun Indians out, but his absence from the bowling crease was bizarre with the amount that his teammates bowled.
India began the day at 330 for six, and Australia had a theoretical chance to bowl the opposition out and claim a first innings lead. Those chances increased when Wriddhiman Saha was given out LBW to the seventh ball of the day. A DRS referral showed the ball was missing leg stump, and Saha made the most of this reprieve to go on and score his third Test hundred with a career-best 117.
While Saha was great, this day was all about Pujara and his self restraint. By the time he was gone India were 72 runs in front and the only team that could lose were Australia. Given the surface, and the fact that Australia bowled pretty well, Pujara did exactly what his team needed him to do. In the unlikely event that Australia are bundled out on this pitch and India claim a win, even if a bowler took 10 wickets, the man most responsible would be Pujara.
If you made it through all 88 overs that were bowled in Ranchi on Sunday you deserve some credit. It was a struggle. But the quick runs from Ravindra Jadeja at the end of the Indian innings, and his two wickets before the close, gave the home team the belief that they can pull off a win.
For Australia, they may find themselves questioning whether they want batting friendly pitches. There were endless complaints about the pitches in the first two Tests giving too much to the bowlers. More than two days in the field chasing a leather ball in Indian heat may see them change their minds.
When the declaration eventually came Australia had eight overs to bat and they made it to 23 for two at the close, losing the out-of-form David Warner and nightwatchman, Nathan Lyon. With India 152 runs in front on the first innings they will need to bat for at least 60 overs to make this match safe. They should be more than capable of that, even with the loss of those two wickets. But in Bangalore they were bowled out for 112 in 35.4 overs. This is a far better batting pitch even going into the fifth day, but it will not be easy.
The number of overs that were bowled around the wicket from the spinners and seamers in India’s innings means there is significant rough outside the left handers’ off stump and Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashiwn will be relishing the prospect of pitching the ball there over and over again.
Even then, this game should still be a draw. But just maybe, after watching so much slow-paced cricket for four days, life, and Test cricket, will reward us with some excitement.
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