The recently concluded debut test match at Ranchi produced a fascinating encounter between the two top teams of the test format. Each team had landed one big blow to the other in the previous two encounters, and the second victory was likely to be decisive; two wins for Australia, and they would retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy. A win for India, and it would be an affirmation of their prowess at home.
In the midst of all this, the Indian number 3—Cheteshwar Pujara—scored a crucial double ton. He hadn’t scored one in the test format for a while despite his reputation for racking up big scores. In this prolific first class season, he has amassed 7 hundreds and 9 fifties at 87.26 runs per dismissal. The ICC rankings have taken note, and he has climbed to a career high no. 2 ranking in the test batting charts.
In spite of scoring 202 runs, and having occupied the crease for more balls than any other recorded innings either by an Indian or any player in Indian conditions, it didn’t take a lot of time for his detractors to point to his “slow” innings. A strike rate of 38.5 was bound to rile a few T20 hipsters, especially when India couldn’t seem to dismiss the last 4 Aussie batsmen and win the match.
This is not the first time (and certainly not the last time) that aspersions have been cast on Pujara’s abilities. Why, about a year ago, Pujara was not a certainty in the test side with the team management favouring K L Rahul and Rohit Sharma in his place. The reason? Strike rate. Espncricinfo’s S Rajesh weighed in with his analysis and concluded that his strike rate pace in overseas conditions had taken a dip. Thankfully, the Indian coach Anil Kumble stepped into the breach and clarified that strike rate was a factor only for test match bowlers. This nod of approval seemed to have done his confidence a world of good. Although, IPL franchisees overlooked him yet again, with perceptions having played some part.
The point remains though—was Pujara’s innings a “slow” effort? Was it selfish of him to grind his way to a double hundred? Did he cost India a victory? Let’s look at the match situation.
The Australian team amassed 451 runs in 137.3 overs taking nearly five sessions away in terms of time. The pitch was good for batting, and there was no guarantee that it would be easy to bowl on in the second dig. Therefore, a good first innings score was essential to minimize the fourth innings target.
To make matters worse, Virat Kohli had injured himself and had spent considerable amount of time getting his injured shoulder treated—despite the team management’s thumbs up, there were no indications about how it would affect his batting. Rahane wasn’t in the best of form despite his crucial fifty in Bengaluru, Karun Nair was a greenhorn with one amazing innings, and the lower order had seen its worst ever collapse in the Pune test. After a second successive bowling pitch at Bengaluru, it is reasonable to assume that the Indian batting wasn’t at its most confident self.
Pujara came into bat at 91/1 in the 32nd over—a comfortable position, but with nearly 9 tricky overs to negotiate. He remained unbeaten scoring 10 runs off 26 balls overnight. The match situation gives a lot of clues about his batting strategy.
The next morning, India began sedately in pursuit of the huge first innings score. Understandably, both batsmen were circumspect and were eager to not give Australia the advantage. His low strike rate is justifiable here. In the second session, Pujara scored 70 runs at a ~75 SR, a far cry from his “slow” image. Note that these runs were scored when India were 193/2, a full 258 runs behind the Australian score. The match situation changed completely by the time tea was taken; India had lost Kohli and Rahane, and were still 148 runs adrift from the target. Pujara was still batting, with the greenhorn Karun Nair for company and a lower order bereft of confidence.
When Ashwin was dismissed at 328/6 in the post-tea session, India were still a long way away from the Australian score. Over the last 5 years, India’s last 4 wickets had averaged 29 runs per tail-ender wicket. An additional 120 runs would have brought parity, but there was no way of knowing how many runs the tail was going to produce in the aftermath of the no-shows at Pune and Bengaluru.
Given all this, the Indian team was fully justified to score at a slow rate. And, since the run rate was low due to parsimonious Australian bowling, the best chance of winning the match was to bat once, and bat big. Therefore, the two wicketless sessions which vaulted India to a no-loss position in the match is great test match batting. Besides, Pujara (12 off 20 balls from 190*, when he could have slowed down to get to the milestone) and India accelerated (RR of 4.54)in the final session, showing great match awareness.
Indian fans may argue that India should have batted faster in the second session; after all, they were only 16 runs in arrears. A gung-ho approach might have worked, but it is worth examining what might have happened if they couldn’t pull it off. A 50 run lead would have yielded nothing in terms of the result; the Australians wouldn’t have batted with the sword of defeat hanging over their heads. In all probability, it would have petered out to a dull draw. Who knows, if Australia had erased the deficit and gone hell-for-leather, India might have had to survive some uncomfortable moments in the manner of the Rajkot test against England.
The assessment of needing 100 overs to get 10 Australian wickets was spot on—over the last five years, the Indian bowling unit averaged 48 balls/ dismissal (or 8 overs). They had even reduced the Australians to 63/4 but couldn’t press home the advantage.
Ever since Dravid retired and Pujara moved to one drop, no number 4 batsman in the world has been coming to the middle to face an older ball. India have been losing their second wicket by the 26th over, until recently. He can crank up his strike rate when needed—his test record has shown that he usually bides his time before accelerating. No wonder Kohli called his contributions under pressure as priceless.
In conclusion, Pujara’s innings kept Australia at bay all through the test match, and gave India a genuine shot of going 2-1 up in the series. To criticize his monumental effort and calling him a one-trick slow pony is a great disservice to his talents, and those arguments do not acknowledge the cricketing circumstances of his knock.
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