Ben Jones analyses a day when India followed in Cheteshwar Pujara’s footsteps, and flipped their strategy on its head.
It’s fine to get things wrong, as long as you learn your lesson. On Day One in Adelaide, ten Indian batsmen got it wrong – today, they followed the one man who got it right.
In the first innings, Virat Kohli’s side fell away. They subsided, after all the pressure, and all the pre-series anticipation, drunk on a cocktail of bad shots and good bowling – but rather too much of the former for anyone Indian to feel satisfied with their lot. Luckily for them, they were saved by the exemplary, defensive batsmanship of Cheteshwar Pujara, who showed a restraint that, whilst nothing like as rare as some make out, has become unfashionable of late. In the first 50 overs he attacked just 11% of his deliveries – the fewest of any Indian batsman. He dragged his side to a competitive total of 250, by zigging where the rest had zagged. He looked at the frenetic intent of his teammates and thought, “not quite my tempo”.
Given the critical chat which has circled Pujara for his entire career, chat which has intensified in recent times, this was brave. He has been taunted for batting too slowly, for lacking the very ‘intent’ India showed an excess of on the first morning. It is a fair accusation, on its own terms – no Indian batsman has attacked less than Pujara over the last two years. His controlled, reserved approach is his defining feature, but it’s a feature that at times has set him against his teammates, and only four months ago saw him out of the side. Yet this Test has been a watershed moment.
Perhaps it was the fear of being 1-0 down again. Perhaps it was the cumulative pressure which has built up over the course of a year where much has been promised, and little delivered. Perhaps it was just that when a man goes out and makes a century when nobody else passes fifty, it’s wise to look at how he did it, and take note. But regardless of why, India have started to learn their lessons from Pujara, and bat with a level of diligence appropriate for the situation.
When India’s openers walked out to bat today, the game was in the balance. WinViz gave them a 43% chance of victory, a healthy position but one that Australia’s bowlers would have seen as precarious. In the first five overs, that tense period where Australia felt completely in the game and with the wind of momentum blowing behind them, India refused to play – almost literally. They left 47% of the deliveries sent down to them in that fierce spell, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul showing a level of discipline that seemed unthinkable in the first innings. This was quite some turnaround.
Indeed, this was the longest opening partnership (in terms of balls faced) that India have recorded in Australia since 2004. For a pair that were both fighting to stay in the team before Prithvi Shaw’s untimely ankle-roll, that is a commendable achievement. The start of a Test can be a slow and steady affair, but with all the build-up to this particular context it is, in retrospective, unsurprising that we saw some hard hands and loose flashes from India’s batsmen. It’s not the right way to start a match, but it’s forgiveable, particularly because they remedied it today with control, and apparent contrition.
They showed a willingness to just bat at the tempo the deliveries demanded. According to CricViz’s Wicket Probabilty Model, the deliveries Australia bowled today would have taken, on average, five wickets. The tourists dug in, played the ball on its merits, and set about ensuring their hosts did not get what they deserved. When they did attack, they showed sharper understanding of the balls to go after – their attacking strokes were around half as risky as they were in the first innings.
But above all, what really stands out is that whilst the openers set the tone, the real transformation came in the captain’s innings. A fair amount of the criticism sent Pujara’s way was either said or provoked by Kohli, an inspirational leader but one eager to build an attacking side full of players in his own mould – white ball stars adapting their game to the longer format. The cricketing tension between Kohli and Pujara, and thus between Kohli and defensive cricket, has been one of the defining features of his tenure. Time and again, in overseas conditions, India have seemed to bat too loosely, too eager to impose their undoubted quality on the opposition. It’s an approach that Kohli embodies, and appears to live by, so it’s no surprise that he is unwilling to move away from a mindset which has made him the best in the world. He has been steadfast in sticking to his guns, but today he made a timely concession to Pujara’s style. It may have won India the Test.
Because this was the least attacking innings of Kohli’s entire Test career. He attacked just 9.6% of the balls Australia sent down, the lowest figure he’s ever recorded in an innings of 50 balls or more. Instead of looking to hit boundaries, he focused instead on rotating the strike, which he did to 43% of the deliveries. This was a low-risk approach for a high-stakes situation, designed to minimise the chance that Australia would slice through the Indian line-up and keep themselves in the game. It was an approach he was borrowing from Pujara.
Kohli’s defence was still positive, of course. He opted, as he did in England, to bat well out of his crease against the seam bowlers, negating the lateral movement and disruptive. His average impact point against those bowlers was more than two metres away from his stumps, coming forward – 30cm further forward than Pujara. If Kohli was going on the defensive, he was going to it in the most proactive manner possible. It made a striking contrast with the behaviour of the struggling Australian Peter Handscomb, whose impact position of 1.48m in this Test is over half a metre deeper in the crease than Kohli’s.
It worked. Whilst the battle with Nathan Lyon was a nervous one for the Indian skipper, and the off-spinner eventually claimed his wicket, against the seamers Kohli was comfortable. He played 9% false shots, an excellent performance against an attack with their tails up and scenting blood, and in the time he was at the crease lifted India’s WinViz from 53% to 64%. It’s not a position of absolute dominance, but the joy Australia showed when Kohli was dismissed was not that of men who thought they had won the game. Rather, it was the reaction of players who knew they were very close to losing it. Kohli’s partnership with Pujara had almost taken the game beyond them.
Pressure on the highest stage can do different things. It can make diamonds, or it can make dust. For India, for the neutral, for those who have a deeper affection than most for the timeless batsmanship we saw today, it’s been a delight to see Pujara prove himself as precious a commodity as the more noticeably sparkling members of his dressing room. He has coped with the intensity of this opening Test better than anyone on either team. If India can swell this lead still further, they will have their No.3 to thank, not only for his own considerable contributions, but for showing his others the way to succeed.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.