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Cheteshwar Pujara and the Question of Tempo

Ben Jones looks closer at an innings which prompted a debate about the fundamentals of batting.

A zoetrope is an old-fashioned contraption that displays a series of still images inside a cylinder, which when you spin it, gives the illusion of movement. The one you’ve probably seen – or will see if you Google it – typically shows a horse galloping along, a graceful whir of legs moving, gathering speed with the spindle. If you look at the images individually, in isolation, the horse is stock still. Rotate the zoetrope, and it leaps into life.

Glancing at Cheteshwar Pujara, at any point during his innings at the SCG today, was to see something similar. 50 (176). A series of blocks, leaves, nudges and taps, a collection of still images. But throw them all together, spin them all around, and you’ve got yourselves an innings.

Pujara showed almost zero attacking intent against the seamers in his innings. That is no exaggeration – he attacked just 2% of the deliveries he faced, a grand total of three balls, and scored just 17 from the 126 he faced.

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The trench-digging against the quicks was balanced, at least in part, by intent against the spinners. Pujara scored at 4rpo against spin, attacking 16% of the deliveries sent down to him by Nathan Lyon and Marnus Labuschagne, a figure which while being below the Test average, is then only further testament to his scoring rate: above average intent, significantly above average scoring rate. For all the cautious caricature of Pujara he’s one of the keenest players in the world to use his feet against the spinners, to change the angle and proactively take control.

However, by the end of his innings, Pujara had attacked just 6% of his total deliveries. Since attacking shot percentage has been recorded (2006), there have been 168 innings from Indian batsmen of the same length (or longer) as Pujara’s knock today; not a single one of them has had a lower attacking shot percentage.

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Pujara’s half-century (eventually) came from 174 balls, his slowest fifty in Test cricket. There have been a good chunk of slower fifties in Tests this century, the most obvious interpretation of the modern era, but not many slower on Australian soil. Only Faf du Plessis (181 balls) and Khurram Manzoor (194 balls) have made slower fifties in Australia this century. The most recent, du Plessis’, was almost a decade ago. It’s no exaggeration to say any young Australians have probably not seen a batsman score this slowly in their country. In some respects, criticism – or at least confusion – is an understandable response to something genuinely extreme.

And yet, despite some discussion among commentators – who are after all employed to speak to that audience – the majority of criticism of Pujara’s innings did not come from the hosts, but from the visitors. Because while we have established quite how defensive Pujara’s innings was, we haven’t addressed the more important question. Was it the right approach?

Well, zoom out a second. India, when Pujara walked to the crease, were 85-2 and 253 runs behind. The initial go-slow, with the captain alongside him as the sun began to set on Day 2, was obvious and understandable. Yet because of it, when him and Rahane returned at the start of Day 3, the situation hadn’t changed. They were still a long way behind. There was still lots of time to bat. The rate at which they made the runs only mattered if they were trying to force a win.

India drawing this Test would have been a superb result. 1-1 going into a last Test which is probably not going to happen would have made it highly likely they leave the country with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy safely stowed in the overhead locker. Risking a draw, risking running out of time to complete the win, was no risk at all. Don’t lose, and you’ve won.

And yet, the criticism rained down from all quarters. Casual fans wanting entertainment; partisan fans wanting to see India push for the win; Virat Kohli fans wanting to see his ethos vindicated. “A 200-ball 50 doesn’t hurt Australia” – well perhaps not, but the 123, 106, and 193 that Pujara made with the same method last time he visited these shores, sure did hurt them. So let’s look at that method more closely.

According to our Expected Wickets model – which looks at ball tracking data from the grounds – the deliveries bowled to Pujara would typically have brought a rather different result. On average, those deliveries would have yielded 94 runs, a whole 44 runs more than Pujara himself actually managed in his innings. The average batsman is scoring almost double the number of runs Pujara did, given the same opportunities.

Yet the point is, you don’t get given those opportunities. You earn them. The flipside of Pujara’s Expected Runs, were his Expected Wickets – on average, the deliveries he faced would have brought 2.6 wickets. To get the chance to face all those deliveries, which others would have perhaps put away, Pujara had to show a defensive ability which others could not.

The only Asian side to ever win a Test series in Australia did so because Pujara decided to bat long. There needn’t be deference to individuals, or unnecessary reverence paid to those who have achieved things purely because they have numbers in the right column, but the method has been proved correct – in a way that no other method of visiting Australia, as a batsman intent on winning a series, has been. You could question this approach if it was being used in a situation where slow scoring affected India’s chances of victory tangibly, where a nip and tuck match was drifting from their grasp. But in all likelihood, they will lose this match by about 150 runs, and that is in no way down to a lack of intent, or the absence of 15 quick singles which would quench the thirst of the public. If Pujara was more like everyone else, India would be in a worse position. If everyone else was more like Pujara, they may still be batting.

Test cricket is beautiful at its’ best. When the gods allow, and two teams and time combine to build a contest of all three forces, it is is the best format of the best sport in the world. Runs and wickets can suddenly be nudged by the need to score quickly, to search for wickets, to force the tempo, to push harder; to dig in, to defend, to retreat and to sink back. However, for the majority of the time, the only equation is how many runs can you, the batsman, score. Regardless of time. Regardless of intent. Test cricket is dull a lot of the time, but that’s not a criticism, it’s part of the challenge. That’s the game. And people forget it.

If Ajinkya Rahane played a loose shot to a good ball because he felt pressure to score, that is his failing. If Hanuma Vihari called through the single because he felt pressure from the scoring rate, that is his failing. Wait, and you will be rewarded. Defend, and the opportunity to attack will come. That’s not to say that attacking intent has no place, but to criticise its absence in what is rapidly turning from a Flat Pitch into a Low Scoring Test, is folly.

Ultimately, Pujara did what he needed to do. His false shot percentage, 10%, is identical to Steve Smith’s in this match, while both have been usurped on that front by younger talents. Shubman Gill – half century, same score as Pujara, greater control and greater intent – standing tall and proud with back foot punches galore, makes the game looks simple. But sadly, and wonderfully, it isn’t simple. Some players find making a half century against one of the best Test attacks of all time a breezy, youthful delight; some find it a 174-ball ordeal. That’s the game. And it’s all the richer for it.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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