Bengaluru: It’s hard enough for batsmen from the subcontinent to come to terms with the seam and swing of England and New Zealand, and the pace and bounce of South Africa and Australia. This becomes even harder batting under pressure in the third or fourth innings, when the bowlers usually have more assistance from the wear and tear on the pitch.
Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman have done it a few times, and Sunil Gavaskar did it before them. Now, Cheteshwar Pujara joins the ranks of this rare breed by top-scoring in both innings to help India win the first Test of the current series in Australia.
Pujara’s 123 and 71 constituted 35% of the team’s total score in the match. Only three other batsmen scored fifties from either side on a sporting pitch, which had bounce and deviation for both pacers and spinners—Travis Head’s 72 in the Aussie first innings, Ajinkya Rahane’s 70 in the Indian second innings, and Shaun Marsh’s 60 in the Aussie second innings. Nobody other than Pujara got a century, and that was the main difference between the two sides.
The closest comparison is with Dravid who scored a mammoth 223 followed by a match-winning 72 not out to guide India to victory in the same venue, Adelaide, in 2003. That was 40% of the team total and 101 runs more than what Pujara got.
But it was a different pitch back then. It started out as a batting beauty and deteriorated in the second innings. Dravid had support from Laxman, who contributed 148 and 32, and opener Virender Sehwag, who made 47 in both innings. It was, in fact, Aussie captain Ricky Ponting who had top-scored with 242 in the first innings.
This time in Adelaide, the drop-in pitch had grass, which made the new ball wobble off the seam. India’s top order collapsed, driving on the up outside off-stump, to 41 for 4. No one, except Pujara, gave a demonstration of quintessential Test match batting in pace-friendly conditions. He played a lone hand to take India to a fighting 250, getting run out in the end to a freak pick-up and throw while trying to farm the strike.
Pujara has inherited from Dravid the moniker of “the wall” for good reason. Like Dravid, he has the mental discipline to stop himself from pushing out at balls outside the off-stump. He lets the ball come and hit a defensive blade if it seams in. He forces the bowler to come straighter and picks them for runs when they do.
While batting with the tailenders, Pujara showed he can attack when he wants to—a hook and an upper cut for sixes were as good as they get. So it’s unfair to describe him as a dour, defensive batsman. He just optimizes batting when conditions favour the bowlers. For me, it’s fascinating to see the concentration required to do that ball after ball.
Indian captain Virat Kohli did likewise in England where he was determined to prove doubters wrong after averaging just 13 in the previous tour. His 149 and 51 in the first Test at Edgbaston would have been one of those rarest of rare feats like those of Dravid and Pujara if India had won. But the Indians fell 31 runs short—the exact margin by which they have now won in Adelaide.
Kohli did get an early reprieve in England when Dawid Malan dropped him, whereas Australia’s Usman Khawaja pulled off an acrobatic, one-handed catch to dismiss him at Adelaide. He was more circumspect in the second innings, but Nathan Lyon consumed him and five others with his off-spin landing in the rough on a wearing pitch.
Here’s where Pujara showed his versatility as a Test batsman. He used his feet to negate the spin when Lyon pitched it up. And, like Dravid, he’s adept at rocking back and either punching the ball into the off side, or riding it at the top of the bounce into square leg for runs. He finally gloved one from Lyon when he was in two minds and thrust out his pad instead of skipping forward, as he had done earlier in the over.
But the 71 he got by then proved priceless, along with Rahane’s 70. A Test victory outside the subcontinent is so rare that to score 50 or more in the second innings happens only once in a blue moon. It’s a little easier to score in the first innings not only because the batting conditions are usually more favourable, but also because you know you’ll get another chance. The pressure intensifies in the second innings when the match is at stake.
Just to put it in perspective, what Pujara did in Adelaide, the great Sachin Tendulkar could not do even once in his 20-year Test career. Think about that: The most celebrated batsman from India never had the satisfaction of scoring 50 or more in the third or fourth innings to help the country win a Test match outside the subcontinent.
India has won only 48 away Tests compared to 101 at home. Out of those 48, only 31 have come outside the subcontinent, including three in Zimbabwe. And that’s a record stretching all the way back to 1932. So, to be able to produce a match-winning second innings effort like Pujara and Rahane did in Adelaide is as rare as it gets.
Laxman also provided a rare treat with a match-winning 73 in the second innings of a low-scoring Test in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2006. The second highest score was 37 by pacer Zaheer Khan.
Laxman’s match-winning 96 in the second innings at Durban in 2010 was the only score of over 50 by an Indian batsman in that Test. He was also the only one to get a fifty in the second innings of India’s famous 2008 win at Perth.
It does take a good pace bowling attack, too, for Test wins abroad, but we saw in South Africa and England that it’s the batting that often lets the team down. India failed to reach a modest target of 194 in the first Test in England, where the team management did not pick Pujara.
It was fitting that the man looking on from the commentary box was Gavaskar, who scored 50s in both innings at Port of Spain in 1971 to give India its first Test victory in the West Indies. He followed that up with a century in the second innings to help chase down a target of 403 at Port of Spain in 1976.
Now the Little Master will want to see Pujara and company tick a box that has eluded India from the time it began touring Australia in 1947. A Test series win Down Under.