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Gill, Pujara, Pant showcase India's batting riches

All of them approach batting differently and have thrived without the fear of consequences

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
If this series so far had been an esoteric Bob Dylan song, here is a more straightforward one for the man who laid the finishing touches.
Come mothers and fathers/ Throughout the land/ And don't criticise/ What you can't understand/ Your sons and your daughters/ Are beyond your command/ Your old road is rapidly agin'/ Please get out of the new one/ If you can't lend your hand/ For the times they are a-changin'.
For a day, it would appear Dylan might have had Rishabh Pant in mind when he wrote Times They Are A-Changin'. Just as this team had doubters after 36 all out, Pant has had doubters within the team and outside it for playing a game they don't really understand.
Imagine - he is coming off a Test when he got out on 97 trying to hit a six with India fighting to somehow stay alive. He has been nearly stumped trying to hit another here in Brisbane, when India are thinking of the unthinkable on the final day with much more in the pitch than at the SCG. Then he sees a ball turn more than a metre. And jumps out next ball to hit a six against the turn.
There will be many waiting to take credit for the way Pant has "matured", but he played the way he has always played. His childhood coach, Tarak Sinha, told Times of India last week that more than fitness, more than "maturity", Pant needed his bat swing back. If he gets out, he will live with the consequences. If he gets out blocking a ball he could have hit, it will be tougher to live with it. That's batting for him.
In Sydney, and in Brisbane, Pant just batted. In a 16-Test career -- 14 of them played away from home, three as the third-choice keeper and three as the second choice -- Pant is already among the top-15 six-hitters from India, with 23 such hits. Nineteen of them have come off spinners, including his first runs in Test cricket. He can get out playing any of those shots, and people wouldn't be talking of the mature Pant then, but he knows the percentages are with him. He knows he is that good.
Just imagine being the Australia captain and bowling unit. What do you do when a man simply refuses to care the way you want him to? A man who just bats. Doesn't think of win, draw, loss on the final day of an epic series. This is not the beat Test cricket is played to. There are cracks on the pitch, you are up against a tiring but excellent attack, you know wickets can fall quickly, you know one shot can undo 17 days of incredibly hard work that has brought you this far, within a shot of history. You know what happened in Adelaide in 2014-15. You know what happened at The Oval in 2018.
You should take a draw that is greater than a win, but you just want to bat. You want to back yourself. You are a madman. You are on the verge of securing the Border-Gavaskar Trophy if you just bat out 12 overs. It is going to be the greatest comeback ever, but you risk it all by playing a reverse-sweep? You see, it is not a risk for Pant. He backs his reverse-sweep with that field set. He knows all these incredible chases over the last two-three years - Ben Stokes, Kusal Perera, Jermaine Blackwood - have been sealed by batsmen just batting the way they do. And you can't bat if you are clouded by consequence.
After it was all done, Pant was hugged by every Indian team member, from teammates to coaches to the other support staff. The batting coach and the coach held on to him, the throw-down expert probably received a big thank you with the hug, R Ashwin was like a big brother, but as Pant reached Cheteshwar Pujara, everything went into slow motion. Pujara didn't want too strong a hug. He had worn so many blows - head, side of the neck, forearm, ribs, gloves, all told 10 in one innings on a pitch increasingly uneven in bounce - that a half-decent squeeze from Pant would surely have hurt him.
If Australia couldn't force Pant to care enough to doubt himself, they couldn't get Pujara to care less than enough to make a mistake. Session after session, day after day, match after match, Pujara makes them bowl their best ball to get him out. If it is not good enough, it will not get Pujara out. And it takes Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. Not even Mitchell Starc.
And when Cummins bowls that unplayable ball to get him lbw by the barest of margins on the tracker, he is bowling his 157th over of the series, more than he has ever bowled in a series of four matches or fewer. Pujara has faced 42.5 overs of those from this incredible bowler who hardly gives a freebie and has a habit of bowling unplayable deliveries. Overall he faced 928 balls, close to a fourth of the balls faced by India in the series. And yet everyday he must get to hear how he doesn't hurt the bowlers no matter how long he plays, how he is responsible for others getting out, how the game needs to keep moving.
Despite all that is happening around him, Pujara does so almost in trance. Even when he is getting hit, the hands holding the bat are always going down. Even when he is hit on the bottom glove, it is in the process of going off the handle. This is survival batting but Pant and Shubman Gill can keep attacking because they know Pujara is there. If someone needs to shut shop, Pujara can do so even if he is staggering and stumbling. And no amount of blows can push him back to a ball he should be forward to. In fact he goes on to target Starc and upper-cut him, unsurprisingly so. In doing that Pujara is lending a hand to the new one. This old road is not rapidly agin'.
One of the new ones is Gill, representing the depth in Indian cricket. Debuting after 36 all out, at a position where batting has never been tougher in the history of the sport, Gill has announced himself regally. In him and Mohammed Siraj lie the riches of Indian cricket. Just as Siraj, Gill has shown he has come ready for the highest level and format of the game. Siraj lost his father during the tour, Gill must be worried about his, given the farmers' protests in the biting cold of northern India. The personal challenges these players are facing can't be overlooked.
Can you imagine a tougher initiation into Test cricket than the first two overs Gill spent in the middle? From the non-striker's, he saw Starc swinging it back in to Mayank Agarwal at 145-plus, seam one away, and then rip the pad off with the inswinger. At the striker's, he saw Cummins continuously seam it this way and that. Yet he never looked out of place, never late, never rushed into playing a shot he doesn't want to play.
All the series' hard work - for returns of 45, 31*, 50, 31, 7 - finally, for a change, brought him easier batting conditions on the final morning. No one deserved the harvest more than Gill. The morning session was perhaps the easiest for batting all series, likely because of the moisture from the overnight rain, which can tend to re-bind the surface. You need someone to cash in on these conditions without getting out and thus nullifying the advantage of the conditions.
Gill has the game for it. He batted with a control percentage of 95, which is scarcely believable for this series. So good is his stroke-play he scored at a strike rate of 62 without taking risks. Batting is an imperfect art. It yo-yos from Pant to Pujara, who bring their own unconventional survival tools, but Gill gets as close to perfection as might be possible when accounting for all the vagaries you have to deal with in Test cricket. Foot movement is precise, defence is solid, the shots are all there, and the eye is quick. If you are a batting enthusiast, this is what you dream of watching on a mildly cold Sunday morning.
Even when the ball started to misbehave around lunch and Australia went short, Gill moved his guard towards off, and didn't give up hooking. He knew he couldn't control them all, but scored 34 runs off 26 short balls.
Between them, Gill, Pujara and Pant represent the might of Indian batting. This is a side that was bowled out for 36 a month ago. Now it has breached Fortress Gabba with a chase of 328. These are chases that will come off only once in a while, but if the batting riches of India find a way to just go out and bat the way they know best, India will keep putting them in positions to pull them off. Tim Paine and Justin Langer perhaps knew it all along or they would have declared sooner.
Don't stand in the doorway/ Don't block the up hall

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo