Ben Jones analyses a 481 minute masterclass from India’s brilliant No.3 batsman.
In high-scoring Tests, the opportunity to impact the game over a short period of time becomes the privilege of the bowlers. A few quick wickets become far more impactful than a quick 40 (50), the latter a brisk drop in the ocean while the former may have stopped 150-200 runs. On these sort of surfaces, your influence as a batsman is tied to how long you’re out in the middle.
Cheteshwar Pujara understands this better than anyone. He doesn’t bowl, and he’s a mediocre fielder; when he’s stood in the middle, with a bat in his hand, that is when he makes his contribution. He makes it count.
So, on a slow low surface in Melbourne, the Indian No.3 set about ensuring he would last longer than everyone else. On the first day, he batted through until stumps, and for much of Day Two it felt like he may repeat the feat, lingering around the day after Boxing Day, like a distant family member who stays for yet another round of leftovers, refusing to go home.
Pujara batted with caution, security, and control, and it was devastatingly effective. This was the slowest scoring rate he has ever recorded in a Test century, trundling along at just 1.99rpo. In part, this was due to the pitch; in part due to the tactics employed by Paine; but mainly thanks to Pujara being Pujara. This was simply the rate at which he wanted to make his runs.
Because his scoring rate was a deliberate choice; there was no intent to score more quickly. He attacked just 9.3% of the deliveries Australia sent down to him, again the lowest ever figure he’s recorded during a Test century. This was the most restrained century ever produced by a man known largely for his restraint.
He almost refused, point blank, to score any runs when the bowlers got it right. On a pitch where the Australian seamers have had to strive for any movement or pressure they have found, rebuffing the traditionally good deliveries by just dead-batting them, or even just letting them go by, was Pujara’s attempt to further depress the home bowlers. It worked perfectly.
Some might infer this as having ‘lacked intent’. But Pujara did show intent. He intended to stay at the crease and bat, and bat, and bat.
Because this wasn’t a pitch on which you could force the pace. It was a pitch where opportunities to score rarely came, and when they did they needed to be maximised. Pujara did just that. On Day One, Pujara played 22 attacking shots; just one of them saw him play and miss. This was a canny, clinical display of shot selection and execution, from a man blessed the ability to judge exactly which balls to go after, and to go after them with aplomb.
India have shown admirable willingness to take their time on this pitch, and on this tour in general. To tweak an old phrase, they have shown a willingness to risk drawing the Test in order to win it. When Pujara arrived at the crease (after Vihari’s blockade), WinViz gave the draw a 31% chance. As he left the field, it stood at 64%. India’s own WinViz chances had fallen slightly, from 32% to 28%, but Australia’s chances had been decimated. The hosts still have a slim hope of finding a route to victory, but it’s neither obvious nor easy. Pujara had blocked it off.
Indeed, the spirit of Pujara has wandered across into his teammates during their time in Australia. As a team, India defended 34% of the deliveries they faced. Only once in the last 18 months have they exceeded that. This pitch had a very specific set of challenges, and the Indian batsmen showed they were able to face them down.
India’s captain has been batting in the mould of the man above him in the order. This series, Virat Kohli has played an attacking shot to just 11.7% of the deliveries he’s faced. That’s the lowest figure he’s ever recorded, in any series, ever.
For Pujara, the figure is less obvious. He’s attacked 13.4% of his deliveries, just his fifth least attacking series – albeit his least attacking in series where he has faced 400+ deliveries. But the point isn’t that he’s been exceptionally defensive, but rather that he’s been exceptional in defence, and has brought his team – and his skipper – round to his way of thinking.
It is true that these runs have been made on a helpful surface. In the last three years, the longest innings by touring batsmen have all come in the Boxing Day Test, the curator in Melbourne offering a welcome gift during this festive period. But we could still see an Australian batting lineup fail to find the right tempo for these conditions, to get stuck like Vihari or look frenetic like Jadeja. There is still significant skill in making big runs in these conditions.
India are crawling, edging, delicately prodding their way to a series win in Australia. For a side full of white ball chargers, that is a notable feat of restraint. Perhaps Pujara doesn’t deserve the credit for making them play in this manner – he appears to be a reserved character, a quiet voice in a dressing room with several loud ones – but he has certainly shown them a different way. If India win this series, it will go down in history as a victory for Kohli’s captaincy, but they will have done it by learning from their No.3, not their No.4.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.