India vs England: Murali Vijay-Cheteshwar Pujara's success built on mutual confidence
A batsman should be confident in his partner's judgment of running between the wickets, attitude to a challenging situation and ability to handle a bowling attack. In fact, they need to inspire confidence in each other
One of the greatest opening pairs of all time was Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes. Opposition bowlers lived in dreaded awe of the West Indian pair. If Haynes had his broad bat literally stuck to his front pad and offered no daylight between bat and pad, Greenidge was a lot more flamboyant without compromising on a classical approach to opening batsmanship in any way. The 6,482 runs that the duo amassed for the first wicket — a world record — is testimony to the trail of devastation they left in their wake.
You could expect teams to have rejoiced when they separated the pair, except that it brought to the crease Viv Richards, that murderer of bowlers, an eminently anxious moment for opponents.
In Test cricket today, the Indian duo of Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara is inching towards similar exalted status. Their formidable tally of 2,081 runs from 32 partnerships at an average of 65.03 is easily the best by an Indian duo in recent times. Of course, the all-time best continues to be the retired firm of old maestros, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, who in 16 years, jointly feasted on 6,920 runs (143 innings, average 50.51).
The anxiety that Pujara and Viay trigger in bowlers comes from the fact that both are typical Test batsmen. They are blessed with inexhaustible patience and their temperament to stay at the wicket and grind the bowling is monumental. They rarely, if at all, get ruffled, and over a period of time, have built such a wonderful appreciation of each other's style and approach that they seem a well-settled pair, comfortable in each other's presence.
This is a very important factor for any partnership to blossom. A batsman should be confident in his partner's judgment of running between the wickets, attitude to a challenging situation and ability to handle a bowling attack. In fact, they need to inspire confidence in each other, guiding each other through occasional streaky times.
Pujara, who is a bit more aggressive than Vijay, had his trouble with short-pitched deliveries in the Rajkot Test. His wide stance and committed front foot movement, which left his legs further apart, ensured that he couldn't be nimble enough to sway out of the line of the bouncers aimed at his upper body. He took a few blows, but that scarcely unsettled him and this inspired further confidence in his partner.
Vijay, who revels in shouldering arms to deliveries not in line with the stumps, is temperamentally in tune with Pujara. He can shut shop for session after session, till the bowlers bowl in his comfort zone. That's when he drives elegantly on the off-side and occasionally plays the lofted drives in the arc between long-off and long-on.
Their 209-run second wicket partnership while chasing a huge England total of 537 was just the push-back needed to keep the visitors at bay.
The duo has been involved in six hundred-run partnerships since 2013 when they started batting together at the top of India's batting order, but other than a glorious 157-run stand against a fearsome South African attack at Kingsmead in Durban, all their other century partnerships have come on familiar Indian pitches. But that doesn't mean they have been failures elsewhere. They have had substantial partnerships in England and Australia as well apart from South Africa.
The pair's hard-fought determination drains the opposition of its reserves, particularly in Indian conditions. Take the 370 they put on in 436 minutes against Australia at Hyderabad in 2013. The Aussies were so weary by the end of it that they surrendered their second innings in a mere 67 overs to lose by an innings and 135 runs!
More recently, their century stands drained all the fight out of the visiting New Zealanders at Kanpur.
Similarly, a rearguard action against England at Rajkot was really praiseworthy. Had the duo not batted in the manner they did, the visitors would have walked all over the Indian batting line-up. But by milking the bowling, even as they offered stout defence, the duo squeezed out the chirpiness out of the England.
Their 209-run stand in 67 overs might have been slow. But it was worth every moment because it set the tone for India's reply. It also sent an ominous message to the opposition: Be prepared to fight every inch of the way.
Cricket folklore is littered with tales of partnerships, both batting and bowling: Lillee and Thomson, Waqar and Wasim, Michael Holding and Andy Roberts, Dravid and Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar etc. The only thing common to all of them is consistently getting runs or wickets. Haynes and Greenidge scored a 50-run partnership once every 3.52 innings. Pujara and Vijay have already done better than the legendary West Indian duo, with a ratio of one every two innings (15 partnerships of 50 runs or more in 32 innings).
Who knows, by the time they are done, they could well be the new benchmark.
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