Stephen Fleming is one of the sharper students of the game, and he has kept himself up to date with the modern game through his coaching stints with various T20 teams. In an interview with The Cricket Monthly in 2017, he pointed to an interesting change in Test batting. It was being taken over by aggressive batsmen. It wasn't pointing to any decline in defensive batting or looking down upon it, but the point Fleming made was that the best batsmen - the most skilled ones - were now batting at a quicker strike rate. It didn't mean their defence was bad, rather that they were good at attacking.
Before this series, we put that hypothesis to a statistical test. We found that while the average pace of a hundred hadn't changed over the years, the quintet of Virat Kohli, David Warner, Steven Smith, Joe Root and Kane Williamson - the most prolific batsmen of this era - were scoring more hundreds in under 120 balls or even under 150 balls than the best batsmen of the previous generation. Even that number, though, is skewed by Warner's freak hundreds.
We dug deeper for one important trend and found that batsmen in this generation were able to score quicker for longer periods of time. In other words, in innings that these batsmen were scoring more than two runs per three balls, they were averaging much higher than the past geniuses. Or, in still other words, they were all able to score at a high rate while playing a low-risk game. "The best players in Test cricket - Root, Williamson, Kohli, Smith - they almost score a run a ball," Fleming said. "They are that efficient at what they do. Unless it is really hard."
If the best batsmen were choosing this game, who was going to take over from the likes of Alastair Cook, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar even - he tallied 1591 runs in innings where he made two runs per three balls (strike rate of 66.77), as against, say, Kohli's 2277? Were we entering an era of, for want of a better phrase, no out-and-out defensive batting? The over-my-dead-body diggers-in who would be among the best batsmen in the world? We had Kraigg Brathwaite, Azhar Ali, Dean Elgar, Murali Vijay, but they were not among the top run-getters or the top averages. One of the men best suited for that game, Cheteshwar Pujara, had to be publicly defended by the then-India coach. "As far as I am concerned, strike rate is for bowlers and not for batsmen in Test cricket," Anil Kumble had to say.
That was after the third time Pujara had been dropped. He would be dropped in England a year later. There would be calls to move on from him during the home series. One more truly defensive batsmen was at risk of ending up not being counted among the best of his era. Then he travelled to Australia. As things stand at stumps on the first day of the last Test of the series, Pujara has faced 1135 balls, and has spent a little under 30 hours at the crease.
Among visiting batsmen who have played four Tests or under in a series in Australia, only Rahul Dravid and Herbert Sutcliffe have faced more balls. Pujara still has an innings and a half to play another 103 balls and claim that record. Dravid did so against a pretty average attack on flat pitches in 2003-04, Kohli will himself concede he scored runs on much flatter pitches in Australia on the last trip; Pujara has three hundreds against a much better attack in difficult and varying conditions. And he has done so by continuing to trust his defence; his strike rate of 40 in this series is lower than his career strike rate, he has left alone one in every five balls, and he has a control percentage of 85.
Pujara's batting on this tour has been pretty similar to that of Alastair Cook's in 2011-12, when England won an away Ashes for the first time in a long while. Cook simply ground the Australian bowling down, ball after ball, defensive shot after defensive shot, square cut after square cut. Yet Cook did that against a lesser attack and in better batting conditions.
Pujara has been immense in conditions where you can't defend and bat at the same pace. He is in fact a batsman whose batting will usually be a true reflection of the conditions because he respects them so much more than others. He will not rise above the conditions, not in the early parts of his innings, and he also won't play a bad shot when the conditions are ripe for runs. His Melbourne hundred took him four sessions - he said he usually scored 160 in that much time - because it was one of the difficult pitches he had played on in terms of run-scoring. Australia's batsmen went out trying to force the pace, and paid the price.
In Sydney, Pujara came out and switched gears much sooner than he did in Melbourne or in Adelaide, where his hand was forced in a way because he was running out of batsmen. He has broken the spirit of the bowlers. He has played everything right under his head. He has been right behind balls that are a threat to his stumps, but when they are not, he has been willing to opening the face to place the ball.
Australia have tried various ways to get him out: they bowled the channel in Adelaide, they hit him with short balls in Melbourne, and they tried to go to his traditional lbw-bowled weakness in Sydney, but Pujara has been equal to it all. Pujara realises he is a short-leg candidate for Nathan Lyon, with his front knee getting locked, but he has found a way around it by jumping out of his crease and kicking Lyon out all day long.
India are on the brink of their first-ever series win in Australia, but this is a much bigger win for a genre of batting. This is a series win being built on on the efforts of a batsman who has out-defended everybody. Some balance is being restored.