JANUARY 3, 2018
Brief Scorecard: India 4 for 303 (Pujara 130*, Vihari 39*, Agarwal 77) v Australia
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – He just bats and bats and bats. Cheteshwar Pujara came to the crease in the first over and refused to budge until the end of the day. He has faced 1135 balls in this series. As a consequence of that, he’s made 458 runs. One hundred and thirty of them came in Sydney where India have established a position of strength to perhaps take more than a share of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Australia would believe they haven’t quite lost that much ground. They’ll be thrilled to have kept Virat Kohli to a mere 23 and Ajinkya Rahane for 18. And considering they went in with only four specialist bowlers a score of 4 for 303 at stumps is a reflection of some decent work. The only problem is that India keep finding ways to be better.
Or more accurately, Pujara keeps finding a way to be better. At lunch he was 16 off 59. He was sussing out the conditions, deciding what shots to play and which bowlers he needed to worry about. The conclusion – it seemed – was that he didn’t want to be driving on the up. Over the first 50 deliveries that the Australians bowled outside his off stump, he left 15, defended 17 and drove at only three. Only three. No letting those hands stray from the body. No giving the easy edge to slip.
At tea, he was 61 off 138, showing mastery over Nathan Lyon and disdain for part-timer Marnus Labuschagne, who was hit for three fours in an over. Pujara averages 178 against spin bowling since January 2018. And he ruddy well showed it. Australia knew the value of his wicket, which was no more apparent than when they burned a review after Pat Cummins beat his inside edge in the 15th over. Several overs – and barely any further chances later – Pujara whipped Mitchell Starc to the fine leg boundary to celebrate his third century of the series. He went to stumps on unbeaten. #NuffSaid.
Mayank Agarwal was the other major contributor for India. He made 77 for 112 deliveries but those bare facts do little to capture how he overcame a sustained effort by the Australian quicks to bounce him out. Soon after drinks, when it became clear that sideways movement was in short order, Starc came back for his second spell of the day and hit the opener on the glove and the helmet. An unplayable delivery at 146 kph clanging into the head is liable to scramble the brain a bit – and he took further blows on his body too – but he didn’t give up.
Agarwal’s wicket – trying to hit Lyon over the top and being caught at long-on – looked terribly off. But had he succeeded, and planted doubt in Australia’s mind about their holding bowler, at a time when they’d dropped the allrounder from the XI, their big three quicks might have had an even tougher outing.
Starc, who is one wicket shy of 200, Cummins and Hazlewood did their best to stay threatening through the day, bowling at 140 kph and above. But India were resolute. Pujara was resolute. And after a good day’s work – that started with winning the toss – they are in a position to reap the advantage of some bold selections. The SCG has not been as conducive to spinners over last 10 years as it has been in the past but the experts still suggest it will break down and turn big later in the game. Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav – included for this Test with R Ashwin injured – will hope that’s true.
India’s top order then got to work procuring the scoreboard pressure that will further enhance the bowling attack. Well, all except KL Rahul. His struggles as opener continued, a good length ball from Hazlewood grabbing his edge and going to first slip.
Mike Hussey, who was on commentary at the time, recalled a chat he had with Rahul in Melbourne where the India batsman said he felt like he was in an awkward phase of his career. Hussey said that Rahul, at the start of his career, was focused on batting time but now, having had T20 success, he wants to take the bowlers on whenever he ends up under pressure. His game is lacking balance, both at the crease and in the mind. He’s in need of help. And maybe also a break.
There were 33,678 people at the ground for the first day of the New Year’s Test. Steve Waugh’s son Austin was on the bench as one of Australia’s substitutes, soaking in the occasion. The locals cheered their team on. The fast bowlers kept charging in. There was expectation in the air. For wickets, for tension, for mayhem.
Pujara disagreed. Big time.