<
>

Pujara swears by his survival guide

Cheteshwar Pujara's shot-making against seam and spin in the second session was particularly admirable Associated Press

A bye. On a day as gripping as Test cricket has ever seen, a bye shouldn't be a particularly significant event. This one was.

Pat Cummins was playing only his second Test match and bowling a spell that might remain among his ten most hostile spells even if he ends up playing a hundred Tests. He was getting 140kph cutter-bouncers to snarl at batsmen off a pitch that had largely nullified his three bowling colleagues as attacking threats.

Cheteshwar Pujara was batting on 117, holding India together in their reply to Australia's 451, and refusing to make mistakes against an attack that, Cummins apart, was built around maintaining pressure and inducing mistakes.

India were six down and trailed by 123. The ball was reversing. Cummins had just taken out R Ashwin with a brute of a bouncer. A new man was at the crease. Whether India got close to Australia's total or not seemed hugely dependent on the fate of Cummins versus Pujara.

Cummins versus Pujara, however, was simply not happening. Cummins was halfway through the fifth over of his spell, and of 27 balls so far Pujara had only faced two, both in the first over. Of the other 25 balls, Ashwin had faced 20 and Wriddhiman Saha five.

Pujara had been stuck at the other end, facing Steve O'Keefe's left-arm spin. O'Keefe was bowling from over the wicket, into the rough outside Pujara's leg stump with a single-saving field. Apart from one boundary, a full-toss whipped wide of mid-on, Pujara had not scored a run in O'Keefe's five overs. He had kept padding the ball away or defending, refusing to sweep - a shot he isn't too comfortable playing - or try any other unusual means of either hitting him off his line or getting off strike.

Now Cummins bowled a short ball, down the leg side, and Matthew Wade, diving to his left, got a glove on the ball but couldn't stop Saha and Pujara from scampering a bye.

The strike had changed, for the first time in 43 balls.

***
Pujara's hundreds usually follow a pattern. Against Australia in Hyderabad in 2013, he made his first 18 runs off 65 balls (strike-rate 27.69) and finished with 204 off 341 (59.82). Later that year in Johannesburg, he was on 9 off 64 (14.06) at one point, and went on to make 153 off 270 (56.67). More recently, at the SSC in 2015, he went from 32 off 116 (27.59) to 145* off 289 (50.17).

Here, in Ranchi, he had accelerated from 28 off 120 balls (23.33) to move to 109 off 232 (46.92) by tea on day three. The forces around him, though, would conspire to add a third phase to his innings - the final session would bring him only 21, off 96 balls, at a strike-rate of 21.88.

One of these forces was the effect of India losing the rest of their top six. Another was Australia's bowling which, after tea, was at its most disciplined.

This hadn't been the case in the second session, which was lit up by Pujara's shot-making against seam and spin. Cummins and Josh Hazlewood kept bowling too full to him, or too straight, and he kept driving them down the ground and flicking them.

O'Keefe and Nathan Lyon dropped a few slightly short, and he was right back on each occasion, inches from his stumps, to whip to the right of midwicket. More frequently, and almost always profitably, he sauntered down the pitch to them, to drive or whip either side of mid-on and mid-off.

In the last over before tea, he left his crease again to Lyon, didn't quite reach the pitch of the ball and could only block it. The stump mic picked up the wicketkeeper's voice.

"Ooh, I love it when he comes down."

It was just Matthew Wade being Matthew Wade. No wicketkeeper actually likes Pujara leaving his crease.

By the end of the day's play, according to CricViz, Pujara had stepped out 471 times in his career, scored 396 runs - strike-rate of 84.08 - and had only been dismissed twice while doing so.

***

Jumping down the track is an adventure for some batsmen, but not for Pujara. M Vijay is a fairly frequent leaver of his crease; he has stepped out 208 times, according to CricViz, and has scored 389 runs (strike-rate 187.01) while being dismissed six times. For Vijay, leaving the crease is more of a risk than it is for Pujara, and can also bring greater reward.

While scoring his 82 in Ranchi, Vijay skipped out to launch O'Keefe for a straight six, drive Lyon along the ground through mid-off, and loft him over extra-cover. He also skipped down the pitch when O'Keefe brought mid-on and mid-off up, missed the line of the ball, and got stumped.

Pujara's forays down the pitch and his leaves outside off stump reveal the same batting personality. It is a risk-averse personality. He will step out to the spinners, but he will do so only when he thinks he can reach the pitch of the ball to drive along the ground, failing which he will adjust and play a defensive shot. He can score rapidly once he's set, because he sees the ball better, can find the gaps more frequently, and is often facing less fresh and therefore less accurate bowlers. It's not because he is taking more risks.

***
Post-tea, facing O'Keefe's defensive line while Cummins roared in at the other end to other batsmen, Pujara had two options: wait for the bad ball while defending or kicking away the rest; or try something different to disturb his line or get off strike. Pujara went for the Pujara option.

He had good reasons to do so. India were still trailing by a fair way, and Pujara getting out at that stage while trying to take a risk against O'Keefe - even a small, calculated one - would have been just what Australia wanted. Cummins was giving Ashwin a proper examination at the other end - he dropped a difficult caught-and-bowled the over before he dismissed him - but Pujara may have felt he could back Ashwin to survive it. And Cummins, a fast bowler returning to Test cricket after six injury-ravaged years, couldn't keep his spell going indefinitely.

Still, the other members of India's top six may have thought differently in the same situation, and looked to sweep O'Keefe out of the rough, maybe, or reverse-sweep him, or step out and hit him against the turn or inside-out despite all the footmarks.

Then again, they were all back in the dressing room and Pujara was still out there. Vijay had been out stumped on the stroke of lunch. Virat Kohli had edged to second slip while trying a forceful drive off the very first ball he had faced from Cummins - it also happened to be the first time he had faced the second new ball. Ajinkya Rahane had nicked off while trying to ramp a Cummins bouncer over the slips.

Pujara had tried none of those things.

And so he kept kicking O'Keefe away or blocking him, waiting for that slightly off-target ball he could put away for runs. He would have loved to get to the other end and deal with the greater threat of Cummins, but he wouldn't do anything out of the ordinary to make that happen.

On another day, Cummins may not have conceded that bye. On another day, he may have got a few more balls at Saha, and possibly bowled him something unplayable, leaving India seven down and trailing by more than 100.

On this actual Saturday in Ranchi, Cummins conceded a bye. Saha got on strike against O'Keefe, who immediately went around the wicket. Saha swept and lofted him for two fours in two overs. Pujara, facing the sixth over of Cummins' spell, cut him away for a four and a two, either side of point.

Cummins went out of the attack; Pujara and Saha survived the last ten overs of the day. India ended it six down, trailing by 91. It was still anyone's game, and Pujara was still out there, undefeated.