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Match Analysis

Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara prove India willing to get their hands dirty

For nearly 80 overs of a fascinating contest, the visitors dug in and matched Australia blow for blow

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
17-Dec-2020
It is a shame that on a day of high-quality Test cricket, a run-out and what followed in the next half hour will be spoken about more than the persistent bowling in what were less-than-ideal conditions for the home side and the expert batting to counter them for close to 80 overs.
The run-out, of course, could still have a decisive say in the Test, but this was a day when the engine room of the Indian batting rolled up its sleeve, got dirty and made sure the team didn't throw away the advantage of winning the toss, never mind the three wickets lost for 45 runs towards stumps.
In the first over of the Test, it was clear it would be hard work for Australia's bowlers to take wickets. A genuine edge with the new ball didn't carry to the slips. Not a single one would all day. However, it was also soon clear that scoring runs would be hard work, especially when overpitched straight deliveries were hit straight to midwicket or mid-on. It was a slow pitch with steep bounce on which the margin of error was perhaps more for bowlers than batsmen, but then again the edges wouldn't just carry.
India like scoring fast, Australia like nicking batsmen off. Neither was happening. So Australia shifted their attack straighter, and relied more on Nathan Lyon than they would have liked on the first day. In Lyon's sights was his nemesis, the twinkle-toed Cheteshwar Pujara, who had reduced the champion offspinner to uttering a mercy plea of "aren't you bored yet?" on the last tour.
At the sight of Lyon, Pujara, his characteristic phlegmatic self until then, on 21 off 104, began to jump out of his crease. He does so not out of some arrogance but out of the need to not let Lyon bowl lengths that draw forward-defensive shots. It is the most dangerous place to be in when Lyon is bowling because he will keep hitting the splice of the bat and eventually get either of the edges. And while it might look risky to some, Pujara can step out to spinners because that is a skill that has been honed over hundreds of hours of spin faced. He backs himself to judge the length and reach the pitch of the ball or get outside the line and thrust the pad should he be beaten in the flight.
On the last tour, especially in the pivotal first Test, Lyon had missed a trick by not placing a silly point or a silly mid-off, which allowed Pujara to keep thrusting his pad or kicking the ball away. Lyon had remarked then that it was a fair plan against him, and now he needed to respond.
Lyon might not have been able to respond emphatically during that series, but here he had a plan: the silly mid-off. Now Pujara had two catchers to contend with if he stepped out. He even offered a half chance early to that silly mid-off. Forced to play to leg now, he got more inside edges than he usually does, but he kept backing himself. In fact, he stepped out to 14 balls out of 35 he faced from Lyon. At 40%, this rate was significantly higher than his usual 17%.
Lyon kept getting bounce, asking tough questions, but Pujara was not in control of only three of the 14 balls he stepped out to. More importantly, he was quick to cash in whenever he forced Lyon to pitch short. Eventually, Lyon was good enough to draw the dreaded forward-defensive out of Pujara. One of those four dipped enough to land out of his reach and take the inside edge onto the pad. Lyon just believes in bowling the hardest-spun offbreaks that draw batsmen forward and play a little with field placements. "That's what works in Australia," he said the last time.
Pujara spoke of Lyon with respect at the end of the day: "Just the revs he gets in each and every ball, he likes to bowl. He wants to bowl as many overs as possible. That is another advantage which he has. And his line and length is really good, which has improved a lot I feel. His revs are much better than they were four to five years ago. He likes taking the challenge on. He is someone who enjoys his bowling."
Surely this is not the last we have seen of this fascinating contest, but unfortunately - for cricket lovers, not the Kohli family - we are close to seeing the last of a modern master for this tour. Virat Kohli seamlessly switched to Test mode after months and months of limited-overs batting. He came in with no match-time preparation - it wasn't physically possible for him to play all the limited-overs cricket, then the warm-up game, and then be fully intense for the Tests - but you couldn't tell that from the way he batted.
There was a time when Kohli's response to testing spells used to be counterattack. Now, though, Kohli is so sure of his game and confident of others that he knows the exact response for different match situations. And like the No. 4 before him, Kohli is adept at shelving shots or introducing uncharacteristic ones on the go.
Kohli played just two cover drives to pace, presumably because of the steep bounce. Accordingly he also cut down on the defensive push outside off, which meant he was not getting dragged across, thus lining up the lbw balls better. The trade-off was strike rate: this was his second-slowest fifty in Test cricket but he had done his best to eliminate the two dismissals that teams often attempt against him.
To make up a bit, he lofted Lyon only the third ball he faced from the spinner, a shot he is loath to play in Tests lest he give the bowler a chance. He also drove Lyon against the turn even though he usually uses the traditional method of playing with the spin in Tests.
In those regards, this was a better innings than, say, Edgbaston, because here he actually eliminated all the risk, which wasn't the case in Birmingham as was apparent from the edges that didn't go to hand and the catches that were dropped. Then again, there was less sideways movement to deal with here.
In the end, as he looked set to end the century drought, Kohli fell because he stuck to his guns. He likes the quick singles to deny the bowlers a prolonged go at one batsman. Earlier in the day, he saw Pujara deny him one such single. Then Ajinkya Rahane had to put in a dive to make another. Even during the run-out, Kohli did nothing wrong: he trusted his partner as opposed to ball-watching and committed to the run fully. It was just that Rahane had hit the ball a little too well and close to the fielder. It is an error that happens once in a while, and will probably happen more frequently if you rely on these quick singles. The merits of such a strategy can be argued, but not of the rest of Kohli's innings.
If this is the best we get to see of Kohli this series, he has set the bar pretty high already.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo