"I don't think it was the right approach, I think he needed to be a bit more proactive with his scoring rate because I felt it was putting too much pressure on his batting partners."
That was Ricky Ponting's assessment, posted on Twitter in response to a question posed to him about Cheteshwar Pujara's approach in India's first innings of the Sydney Test. Pujara had scored his slowest half-century, facing 176 balls, but despite facing only five overs fewer than Australia, India ended 94 runs behind. There was a run-out and a played-on dismissal while Pujara was at the wicket, which were indirectly linked to his rate of scoring.
This is not opportunistic criticism in hindsight. The questioning of Pujara's approach began well before his, or Ajinkya Rahane's or Hanuma Vihari's, dismissal. The import of it is that if you bat with that approach, you put others around you under pressure and, thus, don't leave yourself and your team an option but to score a big one yourself. And on difficult pitches against good attacks, you are bound to get a good ball before you score a hundred going at that pace.
There is merit to this criticism, but "approach" can soon start to give way to "intent" and it can begin to sound like the batsman is not even thinking of runs. In reality, the approach is not decided by a batsman based on which side of the bed he wakes up. It is a reaction to the quality of the bowling, the nature of the pitch, the match situation, the strength of his own batting line-up, and, perhaps most importantly, his own ability.
It isn't as though Pujara doesn't know the pitfalls of not scoring at a certain rate. This is a method - let's not call it approach because it leads to the awful word intent, which suggests the player doesn't intend to do what is best for the team - that has worked the best for Pujara and India. This was the method that worked on the last tour of Australia when he won India the series by facing more balls than any visiting batsman in a series in Australia in which he played four Tests or fewer. This was the method that worked in Johannesburg where he took 50 balls to get off the mark. This is a method that works for him at home.
This method relies on the philosophy that the more time you spend at the wicket, the better your reactions get and the less accurate and intense the bowling gets. Pujara has shown more than enough times that he can make up for these starts once he has bowlers where he wants them. And it is not always accurate that if he gets out for 20 off 80, he has done his side no favours. The last Test was a good example of Shubman Gill and Pujara tiring Pat Cummins out, forcing him to bowl an eight-over spell in the morning session. The centurion Rahane was well into his 20s, having faced 70-plus balls when he first faced a proper spell from Cummins. It is not always apparent, and it is not always extremely significant, but it has some benefit for those who follow him.
Of course, Pujara can show more "intent" and try to play quicker, but his judgement tells him that involves an undue amount of risk. He was up against stronger, quicker, taller and more accurate fast bowlers than Australia's batsmen were on a pitch that called for accurate banging of the ball into the pitch. The bounce available meant Nathan Lyon was in the game too.
There was no release available for Pujara unlike for Australia's batsmen who had Navdeep Saini, Ravindra Jadeja - his four wickets perhaps flatter his effort - and even R Ashwin, who was now getting hit off the back foot into the off side. All told, Pujara faced 20 full balls and duly scored 14 runs off them. It was the good balls that he didn't go after.
Look at how Rahane got out: that late-cut over the cordon would perhaps work on another pitch, but the uneven bounce meant he played on. Look at how Rishabh Pant got hurt: trying to pull. Pujara knew this wasn't a pitch for the horizontal-bat shots.
The combination of the pitch and the quality of the Australian bowling meant that the slight closing of the face or opening of it for even those singles was deemed to be too risky by the batsmen in the middle. Pujara has faced more than 31,000 balls in first-class cricket in varied conditions and match situations, close to 13,000 of them in Tests. Perhaps it is wise to trust his judgement of what is risky.
Of course, you can try to play the shots regardless, and they can come off on your day, but elite batsmen don't like to take that much risk. Not leaving things to chance is what makes them elite. Especially when they are playing just five pure batsmen.
The risk involved here is of another nature. Pujara concentrated hard for 176 balls, helped take India to 195 for 4, but then an injured Rishabh Pant and he fell on the same score and the tail stood no chance of getting India close to Australia's score. The ball Pujara got was, according to him, the ball of the series, a ball that he said would have got him had he been batting even on 100 or 200. While Pujara can take solace in that he made Australia throw the best punch they possibly could, Cummins, the bowler of the monster ball that kicked off just short of a length, rubbed it in that Pujara's scoring rate helped him and the other bowlers.
"At one stage he had been out there for 200 balls or 150 balls and I looked up there thinking they are still 200 away from our first-innings total," Cummins said after the day's play. "So if things go that way and we can keep bowling well, you're not overly bothered. He is someone you know you are going have to bowl a lot at. I think we got our head around that this series, for him to score runs we are going to make it as hard as possible. Whether he bats 200 or 300 balls, just try and bowl good ball after good ball, and challenge both sides of his bat."
In what can be a bit of a mind game lies an admission too. That Pujara makes you bowl at your best for longer periods of time than other batsmen. Against the same attack, it worked on the last tour. It came close to working on this tour too. At least it gave Pujara a chance.
On this pitch, against this bowling, to force the pace and drive on the up, while not taking an undue amount of risk, you have to be as good as Virat Kohli at that kind of batting. Pujara probably knows he isn't. That is not his skill. His skill is to absorb the blows before taking down tired bowlers. Since about late 2018, even Kohli has started buying into the Pujara philosophy. The best innings of this series in terms of method, Kohli's 74 in Adelaide, took 180 balls. For the first 80 balls of that innings, he went at a strike rate under 30. It was exactly like a Pujara innings, except that Kohli's higher skill at shot-making meant he opened up sooner than Pujara could have.
There is another, more nuanced criticism of Pujara's batting, something he probably needs to work harder on. You don't see too many driveable balls when he is at the wicket because he gets stuck on the crease. So what might be a half-volley for other batsmen is a length ball that Pujara is forced to show respect to. It gives the bowlers a wider margin of error, which means they feel no pressure and thus make less errors.
There is merit to that but Pujara will turn around and tell you that this is what allows him to keep out balls that take other batsmen's edges. Instead of pushing at the ball, he either lets them seam past his edge or play them late and under his eye if they are straight. That by facing more balls the way he does, he actually makes some unplayable balls look negotiable. That by facing more balls, he gives himself a better chance at scoring runs.
With bowlers getting fitter and stronger, with bowling attacks now carrying fewer weak links, it is true that Pujara's method will become less and less prevalent with the future batsmen. This is why probably India made a reasonable call when they dropped him for lack of intent in the past, but Pujara came back and showed with his immense powers of concentration that his method can work. That the criticism of his method is not necessarily on the mark. That he shouldn't be praised for the same method in 2018-19 and be criticised for it in 2020-21.
The biggest problem with the criticism perhaps is that Pujara's method was not a significant difference between the two sides. Or any batsman's method for that matter. Australia's bowling in the absence of Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami is far superior to India's. It is high credit to the visitors that they pulled off the Melbourne miracle but the longer a series goes in Australia, an attack with stronger, quicker, more accurate fast bowlers will prevail over one whose seam attack has a combined experience of 17 Tests, one of them a debutant who has shown the tendency to not be accurate. That is exactly what has happened in Sydney so far.